There are two ways to view Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture and neither of them are bad.
If you take the movie at face value, it’s a solid film, the sort of heavy Irish melodrama that Sheridan has been doing very well for a very long time. The other way is to look at it as the confused memories of an unwell woman, and try to piece together what really happened.
The film is told largely in flashback by the great Vanessa Redgrave’s elderly Lady Rose who’s been languishing in an Irish mental hospital for forty years. She was accused of killing her baby in 1942 and as Eric Bana’s psychiatrist character talks to her and her story is revealed.
She was caught in the kind of love triangle that will be familiar to fans of prestige dramas. There’s an improbably handsome priest (Theo James) a roguish, charming pilot (Jack Reynor), a disapproving aunt, a vicious IRA man, the town drunk, and nuns, nuns everywhere. Young Rose, played by Rooney Mara, is caught between the affections of the priest, her love of the pilot and the conservative values of rural 1940s Ireland.
It’s only the little things that separate this from other films in this sub-genre. Sheridan has been doing this for a long time and he knows his craft. He depicts a very different world from ours with familiarity and a deft, light touch. He can show us a dance where a priest walks among the dancers, using a piece of wood to ensure that they don’t get too close to each other. He can have a room fall silent when a priest enters. He can show crowds whispering when two people talk to each other too long and have an IRA man ask “Where do your sympathies lie?” and have the meaning perfectly clear. And he can do it all without it feeling self-conscious – because he can depict this world from the perspective of someone who lives in it.
In short, taken a face value, this is a perfectly fine, albeit slightly uninspired love story, with a blend of romance and tragedy. Sheridan has previously directed My Left Foot, (which nabbed Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar) In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (That’s not really relevant to this review, but the fact that acclaimed director Jim Sheridan directed 50 Cents’ biography/vanity project is always funny). The more interesting reading is if you think about who in the movie is telling the story.
It’s established early on that Lady Rose is not a reliable narrator. Whatever the truth of what landed her in the mental hospital, she is losing it. And so, if you want, you can look at the story and wonder what really happened? Is it a delusion? Is it just a faded memory with all the rough edges removed? Is it a blend?
And, again, Jim Sheridan knows his craft. He has such a light touch here. He knows how to leave enough clues that you question her story but can never definitively say. For instance, the village where much of the story takes place is so impossible idyllic and beautiful, the costumes so neat. There are dreamlike fields of grass for characters to walk through. Everything is just a shade off being realistic. But not all the time. The shot is frequently split along its vertical axis, with beauty on one side, and banality on the other, as if Lady Rose can’t quite remember what’s on the other side of that road.
The same sort of clues are left throughout the narrative. Again, he knows how to do it with a soft touch. A less experienced director would draw attention to these things but Sheridan can make you question the whole thing just with a costume change. No one in the story draws attention to it (after all, in a dream or memory, you don’t question these things) but it leaves you wondering.
Near the beginning, Rose is watching a newsreel about the German bombing of Britain, only for the theatre to be bombed. Later, her and the pilot, in the past, dance to music that Rose is playing in the present. There are so many instances of the abstract becoming real, of blurring the line of what is and isn’t real, and it’s all in quiet details.
Ultimately, it’s the film you think it is. It’s a heavy Irish drama, filled with fine actors doing good acting, but it’s also a film about the power of narrative. This story of forbidden love has sustained Rose for forty years. However much of it really happened, it has its power.
The Secret Scripture is playing at Palace Electric.