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‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 17, 1995

JOHN SAYLES has a filmmaking style that's often closer to leaden than lyrical. But his plodding manner works somewhat to advantage in "The Secret of Roan Inish," a modern-mythic drama set in Ireland that explores the special relationship between Irish seaside dwellers and Selkies -- seal-like creatures said to be part human.

The drama is actually based on "The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry," a novella by Rosalie K. Fry, which is set in Scotland. But for his adaptation, Sayles switched the locale to the west coast of Ireland (where he felt more informed about the folklore) and tried to make the Celtic supernatural forces in the novel a little more tactile -- hence an abundance of seagulls, seals, wind and waves that fills the movie with atmosphere.

In the movie, set in the late 1950s, 10-year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney) comes to stay with her grandparents Tess (Eileen Colgan) and Hugh (Mick Lally), who used to live on the island of Roan Inish. Evacuated from their spiritual habitat during World War II, they have lived on the mainland ever since.

Fiona's grandfather tells the story of how -- when the grandparents were leaving the island -- Fiona's younger brother Jamie was swept away by the sea in his cradle. Later, Fiona hears rumors from her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan) that Jamie survived and can be seen floating around in his cradle.

When she finds evidence (footprints and an old fire) that someone has been living on the island, Fiona is convinced Jamie is alive. Her obsession to find her lost brother also becomes a quest to restore her grandparents' faith in the myth-based existence they used to lead.

Sayles takes an understated, realistic approach to the story, using no special effects. (As a low-budget, independent filmmaker he couldn't afford them anyway.) He concentrates on the lifestyles and everyday rituals of his characters, letting their oral tradition and unquestioning beliefs in Selkies supply most of the movie's mystery.

In fact, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is suffused with characters' personal anecdotes. Fiona's cousin Tadhg Conneelly (John Lynch) tells the most significant tale (as well as the best part of the movie), in which Liam (one of Tadhg's forebears) took a Selkie woman as his wife, raising their children in the same cradle that took Jamie away. How this story connects with Fiona and the ostracized, darker members of her family is very much the point of the movie. And if you don't mind wading through Sayles's long-winded exposition to get there, you're likely to feel rewarded rather than exhausted and soggy.

THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (PG) -- Contains inoffensive nudity.

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