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After the botched New York thriller Dream House, Jim Sheridan returns to his native Eire, and stirring material, with the dark romance of The Secret Scripture. Rooney Mara and Theo James deliver their most richly nuanced screen work to date in the drama, a memory piece whose true subject is Ireland’s tangled, bloody history and the Church’s toxic paternalism toward women.
Handsomely lensed by the gifted cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on all of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s features, the movie has a lush gloom that suits its central mystery. That mystery, the circumstances surrounding one woman’s condemnation to an insane asylum, loses its hold in a final rush of revelations that fits the pieces together all too precisely. The neat wrap-up doesn’t undo the power of what precedes it, but it certainly lessens the effect. However welcome the redemptive flickers of light at film’s end, the way they’re arrived at will pull many viewers out of the story.
The adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s novel (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) is credited to Sheridan and the late Johnny Ferguson, and condenses the action to two periods: 1942 and 50 years later. In the contemporary setting, Vanessa Redgrave is Roseanne McNulty, known familiarly as Lady Rose and the last resident of St. Malachy’s asylum. As the institution where she’s spent most of her life prepares to be turned into a hotel and spa, Rose refuses to be bussed off to another facility. Enter psychiatrist Stephen Grene (Eric Bana), summoned for vague reasons by the Archdiocese of Sligo to assess her case.
Other than serving as a compassionate counterweight to the institution’s hard-hearted chief (Adrian Dunbar), Bana’s role is largely reactive, but he invests it with a quiet melancholy and openheartedness. Left alone in the asylum with the patient and a nurse played by Susan Lynch, who’s there only to nudge the story along with sympathetic looks and the right questions, Dr. Grene reads through Rose’s file, which includes newspaper clippings about her arrest for murdering her newborn. He listens attentively to her recollections, incoherent bits and pieces filtered through the haze of time and electroshock therapy.
In an urgently whispered mantra, Rose insists that she didn’t kill her baby. Recognizing a sensitive audience, she reads aloud from her “secret scripture,” a diary she’s written into the margins of Bibles. Whether she’s attempting to communicate, wandering the desolate halls or playing Moonlight Sonata in a daily ritual at the piano, in Redgrave’s eyes we see Lady Rose bringing a part of herself into focus, crucial chapters from the past coming back to her with a new specificity.
The elderly patient’s connection and contrast with the vibrancy of young Rose (Mara) is the story’s tragic heart. Returning to small-town County Sligo in 1942, her life in Belfast upended by the war, Rose is a lightning rod for the repressed, provincial villagers. Her beauty and self-possession, as well as her exotic Protestantism, draw the attention of many men, among them a young priest, Father Gaunt (James), who offers unwanted advice on how to conduct herself. James deftly underplays the cleric’s conflicted emotions as he hovers possessively around Rose, who calls him “a priest who wants to be a man.” Mara and James lend a fine tension to their characters’ shared scenes.
At a time when a woman’s sexuality was considered something to be controlled, the priest’s indiscretions become Rose’s sins. “Do you not understand the power you have over men?” her moralistic aunt (Aisling O’Sullivan) asks her accusingly before tucking her away in a remote cottage. In many ways Rose’s subsequent solitude is an illusion. A local IRA leader (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) has been watching her as closely as the priest has, wondering when she’ll “pick a side”; though the Irish Republic is not technically involved in the world war, another war is underway, the internecine battle between pro-British Protestants and republican Catholics.
But World War II is hardly out of sight; RAF planes swoop overhead — caught, in Krichman’s fluent framing, between Rose’s upturned face and the gray sky. Air force pilot Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor), a local boy who had already caught her eye, will fall from that sky, crash-landing into the woods, and Rose will hide him from the IRA gang who regard him as the enemy. A profoundly romantic friendship, love and marriage quickly unfold between them. Their precarious idyll is beautifully directed and played — has the screen ever given Mara a chance to beam so unhesitatingly? Their bond is all the more powerful for how short-lived it will prove, and how violently the lovers will be punished for their happiness.
Sheridan, reuniting with producer Noel Pearson (My Left Foot, The Field), shapes the drama with a sure grasp of the injustice that courses through Rose’s story, which will find her not just at St. Malachy’s but also, during her pregnancy, at one of the Magdalene Laundries, Ireland’s horrendous institutional response to “fallen women.” Forces of male authority conspire against Rose from multiple angles, all of them twisted — and with ample assistance from women who buy into the era’s fear of female independence. Perhaps the most chilling words in the film are a doctor’s assurance to Rose, when she’s first locked up for “nymphomania”: “You’re safe here,” he tells her. “We’ll take care of you.”
Less dramatically assured is the solution to Rose’s criminal case, which is laid out in a way that’s considerably less convincing than the melodramatic events of her young adulthood. But the director and his behind-the-camera collaborators evoke Yeats Country with a strong sense of place (the film was shot partly in Sligo, but also in Dublin and Kilkenny). Brian Byrne’s lyrical, brooding score embraces and enhances the story’s full-blown romanticism and anguish, as do Krichman’s rich, dark palette and deep shadows — across the years, from the echoing halls of the asylum to the roiling sea where one man will seal Rose’s fate.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Ingenious Senior Film Fund and Voltage Pictures and Ferndale Films present with the participation of the Irish Film Board a Noel Parson production
Cast: Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Jack Reynor, Theo James, Eric Bana, Susan Lynch, Aidan Turner, Adrian Dunbar, Aisling O’Sullivan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Pauline McLynn
Director: Jim Sheridan
Screenwriters: Jim Sheridan, Johnny Ferguson
Based on the novel by Sebastian Barry
Producers: Noel Pearson, Jim Sheridan, Rob Quigley
Executive producers: Andrea Scarso, Gavin Poolman, Nicolas Chartier, Jonathan Deckter, Cormac Crawford, Jere Harris, Eoin Colfer
Director of photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production designer: Derek Wallace
Costume designer: Joan Bergin
Editor: Dermot Diskin
Composer: Brian Byrne
Casting: Frank Moiselle, Nuala Moiselle
Not rated, 108 minutes
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