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‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 17, 1995

Only the seals and the sea gulls know "The Secret of Roan Inish," a beguiling mystery shrouded in stubborn sea mist. This celebration of Celtic myth and the Irish way with words portrays the Conneelly clan, salty fisher folk who moved from Roan Inish -- which translates as Seal Island -- to the rugged shore of the mainland. In doing so, they left behind not only their hearts, but an entire branch of the family.

John Sayles, a filmmaker best known for the issue-oriented realism of "Matewan" and "City of Hope," adapted this fey fable from Rosalie K. Fry's 1957 novella about a boy raised by seals. Though the protagonist is a young girl, Fiona (Jeni Courtney), the movie's languorous pace and solemnity are more suited to more mature viewers. Thus it recalls last year's tale of Irish Gypsies, "Into the West."

Sayles brings familiar tools to "Roan Inish": a passion for language, labor-intensive lifestyles and, of course, the moody beauty of the geography. The writer-director frequently links his characters' personal happiness with their environment. That, more than the unusual marine life of Roan Inish, is the theme of this amiable visit to northwestern Ireland.

Fiona has been living in the city with her father, who spends too much time in the pub, hoping to forget Roan Inish, where both his wife and infant son, Jamie, were lost at sea. Once Fiona is sent to live with her grandparents, she befriends a speckled gull, a fat gray seal and her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan).

Eamon and another cousin, said to be "tetched," tell her about the legend of the Selkie, a seal that sheds its coat and becomes a woman. The blond Fiona is fascinated to learn that the "dark" Conneellys are descended from a Selkie. Spellbound by the tales and the island itself, she persuades Eamon to row her to Roan Inish. What she discovers there helps the Conneellys overcome their losses and reconnect with their ancient heritage.

"The Secret of Roan Inish" is akin to Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero," though the Sayles film is not nearly so enigmatic. The marine biologist of Forsyth's film may or may not be a mermaid; the director leaves it to the imagination. Sayles, on the other hand, opts for a form of magic realism, a genre better left to hotblooded romantics than sober literalists. Still, there's something about the lilting accents and the poetry of his dialogue that is pixilated in and of itself.

The Secret of Roan Inish is rated PG for scenes that might be unsettling for young children.

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