The Secret Scripture : A Film Review


The Secret Scripture

Director Jim Sheridan, Producer Noel Pearson, Screenplay by Jim Sheridan, Johnny Ferguson. Cast, Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Theo James, Aidan Turner, Jack Reynor, Susan Lynch, Siobhan Redmond, Adrian Dunbar. Music by Brian Byrne, Cinematography Mikhail Krichman, Edited by Dermot Diskin, Production company, Ingenious Senior Film Fund, Voltage Pictures, Ferndale Films. Cert. 12a. Duration 1hr 48mins.


Beyond Dublin in the Green

Some people have got this film horribly wrong and are unable to cross over into it’s tragedy in a trinity of hope. The Irish Times gives it this ‘tribute’ – What’s that? Who’s he? Where’d that come from? When Barry’s novel was published, several critics argued that the final unlikely twist felt at odds with a hitherto disciplined narrative. It says something about the film that the reversal feels perfectly at home among so many even greater lunacies. It even casts sectarianism into a new vein without making comment of how diffuse these things are to convey – it seems in a blind alley Ireland. The mastery of the Bible both potent and conclusive lends written comfort to Rose, a woman betrayed.  It is within the unspoken reading between the lines we go with this film based on the novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry which makes for more imagining than the act of storytelling in film this is.  Nevertheless it is handled extremely carefully with a melding of eras and in themselves drawing comparisons.  The landscape is more familiar to the Irish and the need to know (Philomenas Story is a close relative) diaspora from Canada, America or Britain whose children are the fathers and mothers of new generations of the ‘departed’.  In complete association too are those left beneath fields, institutions buried so none would reflect on their memory except the mothers and those in the know.  From Priests to Police to Orderlies. Into the equationn come knowing townsfolk contributing to the complicity and getting on with their lives by ignoring it in order to straighten their own existence in the changing world.  For the story to begin we enter the present day at Rose’s Hospital and Residential Care home in the midst of it closing down.  Some lessons are learnt and there is clearly an attempt by Director Jim Sheridan to acknowledge Times have changed and the bullying and treatment of people like animals has been removed.  In this present environment there is real care and a making good with what is at hand.  Even the prospect of Rose being able to go to somewhere other than a mental asylum has reared its head.

With the dramatic stroke of a pen Sebastian Barry conjures up a back story to the aging and institutionalised grande dame Vanessa Redgrave playing Roseanne McNulty whose 50 years committal to this decaying and listed for demolition Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, is transported on the journey of her earlier life and circumstances.  Doctor Grene (Eric Bana) is sent to determine whether Roseanne is fit to be released.  The younger Rose is played by the affluent and Irish connected, Rooney Mara whose arrival in a small village in 1940s Ireland causes two men, a fighter pilot and a priest, played by Jack Reynor and Theo James.


New horizons revisited

Jim Sheridan has Oscar-winning debut My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father as home based movies and into Irishmans habitual magnetic pull to tales of immigration he went and it did not fail him with the exile story In America, and was an acclaimed award winning film also.  Some subsequent entries to the mainstream movie still didn’t seem to suit his work and this is a return of more recognisable formats and it is an attempt by Sebastian Barry to story tell the periods which define present day Ireland the diaspora and wars intervention.  This of course brings in relationships as the bolstering narrative force.  The auld triangle of a beautiful young woman and two bantam cocks clanging the auld triangle and creating conflicts?

Rose has kept a dairy all these years and we enter its tableau – shortly into the arrival of Rooney Mara from Belfast where it’s unsafe after bombing there.  The arrival of a beautiful independent woman is on this West Ireland landscape in the shadow of Yeats Benbullben outside Sligo, is to an already developed hybrid of gentry, Anglo patrons and a subdued, suppressed by Religion ‘compliant’ malcontented population.  They are not mercifully at war though many across Ireland went and fought alongside the British as it was 1. an option 2. There was little for them at home.  The mainstay of any small community is its perverse sense of hierarchy and those who disobey and act up are likely cast out.  Rose is recruited into her Aunts Hotel Temperance establishment and quickly the honeypot of the scented air takes her into the midst of village taboos.  The first ‘normal’ encounter is with a young man called Conroy a labourer for a hard nosed local family.  They have a built in hatred on the English and when there is another approach not altogether religious and skirting his own anxieties surrounding masculinity and his sacrifice comes Father ..    Rose deflects such straight eyed advances and goes her own path while accepting invitations to the local dance.  The presence of the Church is everywhere and in the dance hall they are required to keep apart while hoAldi get one another while the Priest including the presence of Father …. they leave enough space not to be sinful.

The film is drawn out using a great deal of passage from the present to the past.  It in done with good untroublingbpassage and with the versatile Vanessa Redgrave playing the Lady Rose and the unnerving accurate Rooney Mara as the younger vunerable Rose.

Inconsistencies and alterations. Implausibilities? 

Very strongly held views on this film have come from many who find the story confusing and too contrived in its far fetched coincidences and shaping of characters that feature less in the book than put to purposes dramatic here.  Some even call it a travesty.  Sebastian Barry having sold the rights keeps his counsel and his silence is taken as being far from endorsement. There certainly are large parts of the long history left in the book and a Rooney Mara’s Rose here has a prominent role in a central love story which contains its central themes.  She is an incomer, she is a beautiful sophisticated woman, she is of independent mind, she is entering a part of ‘remnants of occupied’ Ireland beset with unfettered resentment, she enters a village which has ahigh morality  driven by the Church, she is also in proximity to state institutions which remove children and separate single mothers from their babies and lock them up and give their babies away for money.  She also is in proximity to a Medical system crudely operating the appliances of ECT and shock treatment as normal for mental illnesses or difference.  She also notices the formidable rectitude of everyone to hierarchical status including her domineering Aunt (Siobhan Redmond) who’s name along with a few others are not easy to find on press credits oddly.  So is it deplorable to drop large parts of a book and get Shakespearean in this gazette of Ireland observed by the Filmaker Jim Sheridan who wrote the script along with the late Johnny Ferguson.?  There are central characters in this which do not sit comfortably with some people.  The airman flying a Spitfire – they ignore the reconnaissance tasks in the West Coast Atlantic seaboard where U-boats were often found and Lough Foyle famously being the last outpost for plenty of U-boats and also forget the American airbases – the recent BBC My Mother and other Strangers gave you the opposite to this film, delivering a War soap opera – which were in Fermanagh and all across Northern Ireland full of troops and airmen training to be pilots in preparation for the Secret D-day landings.  8,000 in Kilkenny Co.Down alone. While the book may have consorted with the flying mission instead of being a land based soldier, it matters little.  Bonzos are quite capable of shooting down ‘foreign’ planes and planes crash.  Many flights no doubt took place over this very stretch of Ireland’s republic.   Where do you take fault?  Is it the neatness of parts of the linkages.  Is the element of delving into people’s past too trite?  Sheading interesting characters? Is the ludicrously large white collared Priest Father Gaunt too comical and pathetic a figure. His character is volumously turgid and corrupt of a conflicted man. Are the nurses of the old school too clean and Matronly while being intensely underlyingly cruel? All these questions to my mind are nonsense and in the core of the film Rose is telling you how unstable memory is. The record to has advanced writing out that history.  Some of it is fantasy and in parts some of the grim reality turns out to have another side.  I don’t care if half the time the story finds a simple way to the next part as we are closely kept to the woman at is heart trying to imagine what happened to her.  Can you imagine how much she must have struggled to put that behind her.  For her imaginings of what happened to ultimately coincide with a partial reality?  The questions need not be effecting in terms of how they are coming to you as essentially they are in the realm of broken fractured memory.  The script actually places false directions in Rose’s mind only.  The other characters are real and no such bewilderment is visited through them.  Their part is sometimes savage and brutal.  Rose’s is in a state of protection in a fixed world she has inhabited for 50 years?  Can you imagine the damage caused to her and many women like her?

Similarities

I opened the play The Steward of Christendom at random and came across the same times as here. There are common investigations and trials of the past – society in Ireland – undergone by Sebastian Barry of which I rate the play as masterly, profound, haunting, sad forgotten history, much as this film indeed takes us into and it is quite political but Donal McCann made it definitely ‘other’ about the human improsoned in Ireland. Inside the Institution and outside on the Island fighting seeming wrongs. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end in its horrific prescience. Even now it inhabits the same place – even more so given the recent barbaric dreadful disclosures of previous generations guilt and the pain inflicted in those institutions.  Here’s the line I found straight on opening its pages of the powerful orderly Smith – Even in the ward of old dames with their dead brains, have some of them opened their eyes and are weeping to be woken, with your bloody shouting.  Do you want to go in with them, old man? After I beat you! Sebastian Barry on the case even then.

Eric Bana takes a high dose of listening to his requirement for enquiry about Rose.
The rich dramatic material at play and the fascinating historical backdrop means there’s plenty here that proves initially appealing. The young Rose is trapped by her sexuality, arousing interest in men without the slightest provocation on her part yet facing the full force of blame from those around her. The film briefly explores the complicated rituals of dating at the time and the dangers of a bruised male ego when a woman dares to turn a man down.
Initially there was a backlash in contemporary Ireland to the book with its closeness to history and claims of abuse ever in the headlines playing out.  It was seen in reviewers eyes as being far fetched and characterisations of romance purile and simplistic. For the film it’s seen likewise by many. The closing of the film is too contrived and unexpected as Vanessa Redgrave holds centre stage with her marbles intact.  The Secret Scripture use devices of story telling which only flow smoothly in books but it is admittedly hard to convey in the time period of a movie.  Demands of twists and turns though have been dealt with very satisfactorily by Jim Sheridan and there is no overplay of the gestures and realisations as they unfold.  With Vanessa Redgrave playing Beethoven’a Moonlight Sonata, (an accusatory critic paled at its repetitiveness) in solitary moments in a room, we see the breathing diaphragm of a living person recollecting her past.  It is not only sweet and convincing it is powerful and moving.

For the time periods to intermingle we have to have contrast and Susan Lynch playing the part of a present day nurse becomes a key vehicle for the sensitivity of history learnt. Her knowing, caring, is in seeing the woman in Lady Rose and reflecting on what she has gone through over forty years.  With the instruction having been given to assess her being taken up by a psychiatrist who is intrigued by the fortitude and forceful will of Lady Rose, is Eric Bana who plays admirable the ‘outside’ caring professional, quick to note discrepancies in the work of his peer, the notable Dr Jello  of Adrian Dunbar who is in charge with emptying the establishment and sees it as in ‘the line of duty’ as a role he plays with predictable solidity.   Dr Grene on the other hand is given slack and time by Sebastian Barry to develop a quick relationship of patient and Doctor which in present times of austerity are unimaginable.  Nevertheless an authors due – the slack given on occasion to movies due to time scale particularly in adapting books – is to make plausible a story’s reach.  Eric Bana and Susan Lynch form a convincing team and share the sandwiches, lunchbox treats and soups etc. or whatever sustenance is at hand in between Rose’s rest and elderly ramblings.  They too remain in the ghost like building emptying around them.  That is when switches occur back to Rooney Maras action packed life take us into a believable village – preposterous to critics of the book – with fabrications of conflicts infighting and japes and foolery unbetoken of Ireland of the time.


Irony lost on viewers

Sebastian Barry has of course given some ribald irony and an edit of preposterous heft to the story as if to say – Ireland, you were present when this was happening around your ears yet all you could do was turn a blind eye and more than that get caught up in rebellion against a country at war and a religiosity which tore the faith in God out of you and created a purgatory here on earth. It is tangible to see this cussedness in Irish people of that time but it causes more pain it would seem.  The truth always too has its victims. That is the line, the horrific line this film wishes to take us over and into a powerful emotionally troubling period for the characters who represent in fiction real people’s lives unimaginable at this distance horribly corrupted and ruined.  So there is a backlash of morality fighting for concealment as due reflection turns over too many stones close to the perpetrators unable to come to terms with their own families part in these vexing times.  Why drag up the past?  The reason is it uncoils itself in many ways not least in being held in so, it becomes repeated as a manifestation of ancient held in guilt in the sub-cncious passed on.  The doplar effect of the mind.  Séan Hillen in his Irelantis fictional world creates a counter narrative in art with the juxtaposed John Hinde visions of Ireland and as richly as film and novel forms.  More is essential for understanding ourselves the better.

There are scenes in the film which many will find arguable and condonable however I see those particularly disturbing pieces of work as entirely plausible credible entries to the hidden stories Ireland has masked for decades.  It may not be the truth but it bears an uncanny resemblance to the unfurling detail.  It is why it must be examined for what it contains, not for what you would like it to appear.


No chemistry? It’s not totally about their relationship but what hovers around it.

On parallel works

Hence the auld triangle goes jingle jangle. From Galway to Dingle, from Derry to West Cork it’s been happening for decades. Both the internment of the young and vunerable and the institutional abuses therein. The Steward of Christendom by Sebastian Barry was an intensely brilliant play I’ve seen several times and had on it acting – the unforgettable The Dead film character of Gabriel Conroy played by Donal McCann whose performance in John Huston’s 1987 film of the Joyce short is itself a piece of Irish history and also a masterful core part of Irish Cultural excellence in all its various themes.

The themes of the play are not equivalent in this film but provide another shape to the times within this film. For a synopsis of The Steward of Christendom – I’ve extracted the following from a ubiquitous source. The play opens in a county home (an inpatient psychiatric facility) in Baltinglass, Ireland in 1932, some years after Irish independence. In the opening scene, Dunne (Donal McCann) appears to be raving incoherently, reliving an episode of his childhood. As the play continues, Dunne slips from moments of lucidity to reliving parts of his career as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), especially the handover of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins in 1922 after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He also relives memories of his family, particularly his daughters, Annie, Maud, and Dolly. Dunne is also visited by the ghost of his son Willie, killed in WWI; Willie’s ghost appears to him in the form a 13-year-old child but dressed in the soldier’s uniform of his 18-year-old self.

Here the date focussed on by Barry is the early 1940’s. The institutions had been around and become part of the identity of Ireland. In Belfast the 1932 move to Stormont from what was and had been the Northern Ireland Parliament one hundred yards from QFT in the now Theological College since partition in 1925. Sebastian Barry covers this ground in much of his work, of institutional Ireland of State and Health the life on the streets and rural world grippingly as he loosely affirms family connections with the Thomas Dunne the Dublin Metropolitan Police Commander in the play. So too this film for its depiction of a former period of important movement in Ireland. These histories are intertwined and Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera both had ‘seats’ at the Belfast Union College but never once collected from the fifty boxes of the MPs the Order papers of the day for that emerging Parliament. One could play the card Eamon de Valera was a double agent to the British hegemony as future republicans were to similarly trade their countries status. Not in a film though as truth is mainly stranger than fiction.

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Conclusion ####4

I began with a mindset carrying ideas of the lukewarm critical reception of the book and film, both inhabiting that doubt common to adaption of part historical narratives.  I need not have concerned myself too much because this film opens up a layer of life which is seldom considered in its continued influence and in the magnitude of its shaping usand the identity formed as a Nation on its multiple layers of relationships across continents, across short sea journeys and across hedges and parishes.  It harbours a fiction I see to contain many probable realities. I never read the book.  In the depiction of Lady Rose played brilliantly on both parts. Rooney Mara as the young independent free spirited, intelligent incomer beauty full of warmth and expectation and the kaleidoscopic thespian skills not wasted or lost of Vanessa Redgrave, herself no stranger to loss or to Ireland’s perplexing past, is not only endearingly charming but purposely disjointedly harmonious and comforting in its plainness.  There is nothing plain under the surface no matter what the Irish take or spin on it happens to be or where the deniers – and they are the ‘plain’ folk of Ireland themselves, mostly due to present many frstations of suffering across the world would prefer to banish and put away in a state of complacent bewilderment.  If only that were our only path.  The Secret Scripture is written – a form of blasphemy- in black on the Bible – as in the Temperance Hotel (you could say it was a depiction of Ulster which has many many connections with Sligo) – here is a Lilliputian Jonathan Swift world of male believe.  Now and then.  The Bible being the only book – in this puritan hotel – is the only marginila Rose has to take into her incarceration as a hidden diary.  For its uncovering, not matter it’s Preposterous retrieval there are unsettling truths like the words of the Bible itself.  As it is not a Book which is safe in the Clergies hands nor taken with pillars of salt in communion amongst the suppressed and mal treated citizens, already infiltrated by a siege power of a monarchist force.  Since the 1166 occupation the persistent and systematic entrapment is in plain sight from the pulpit and before the pulpit.  Both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland contrite and corrupt in unity of suppression against Gods will.  This film will be seen initially as a passing anecdotal fable worthy of a watch but light on appeal.  It will upset and conflict with perceptions narrow and broad but I would say it will after several viewings reveal itself in time to be full of its own contested narrative slowly bringing a reckoning to bear as its bold and more extreme view is received as history continues to recite its clarion vision.  It is there for us to see in a wider sense and while novels, films can only open some fictional presentation of a past long gone it is always a sudden shock to see its proximity to truth and realisation is slow but within reach.  On a question alone of the mix up of plot and some too fanciful occurrences I knock it back from being a 5 as it is to my mind of a very determined voice setting out to familiarise the world and those closer with the inexcusable period in the past in this country – worse if most probably being effected unknown to us in other parts of the world – and it is a piece of the pyramid of truth being built in memory of those children and women.

It is like a whisky chaser hitting your throats but this is why the fondness for diversion is like dashing your head on the rocks.  So much is ventured there is no small comfort to be had except through thinking along the lines I think Jim Sheridan, Sebastian Barry and the fine strong cast found themselves nurturing.  While it is discomforting it is due plenty of deliberation.

John Graham

22 March 2017

Belfast

On at Queens Film Theatre from Friday 24 March through to and including  30th March and on General release.

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Post Behan Brectian Proustian stories

In Ireland the confinement of Women and Men distinguished little in Mental Institutions from the Prisons like the Mountjoy that inspired the Dominic Behan The auld triangle goes jingle jangle. The lyrics still are chilling and how the Bi-sexual Brendan Behan came to them is anyone’s guess but the waking traingle of the Prison warder still makes people sit up and listen to these lyrics – the last verse.

In the female prison there are seventy women 

And I wish it was with them that I did dwell 

And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle 

All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Was the mind of Ireland imprisoned during these times?

From The Quare Fellow of 1956

ACT 1:
A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing

And the mice were squealing in my prison cell,

And that old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

To begin the morning

The warder bawling

Get out of bed and clean up your cell,

And that old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
The screw was peeping

And the lag was weeping…

(SONG BREAKS OFF HERE)

ACT 2:

A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing

And the mice were squealing in my prison cell,

And the old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

On a fine spring evening,

The lag lay dreaming

The seagulls wheeling high above the wall,

And the old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
The screw was peeping

The lag was sleeping

While he lay weeping for the girl Sal…

(SONG BREAKS OFF HERE)
The wind was rising

And the day declining

As I lay pining in my prison cell

And that old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
In the female prison

There are seventy women…

(SONG BREAKS OFF HERE)
The day was dying and the wind was sighing,

As I lay crying in my prison cell,

And the old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

ACT III, Scene II (end of play):

In the female prison

There are seventy women

I wish it was with them that I did dwell,

Then that old triangle

Could jingle jangle

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

To this song provided for The Quare Fellow by brother Dominic we can add along the themes of imprisonment is this universal song. 

I shall be released

By Bob Dylan

They say ev’rything can be replaced

Yet ev’ry distance is not near

So I remember ev’ry face

Of ev’ry man who put me here

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

They say ev’ry man needs protection

They say ev’ry man must fall

Yet I swear I see my reflection

Some place so high above this wall

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd

Is a man who swears he’s not to blame

All day long I hear him shout so loud

Crying out that he was framed

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

 

End

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