'Roan Inish' enchants with a touch of Irish magic

April 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

They said it was a seal movie. Cool, I'm thinking, Navy SEALS, blowing up Iraqi freighters, taking out terrorists with .50-caliber rifles. What do I know? I go to too many movies.

No, they meant real seals -- you know, dogs with flippers, man's best friend, that sort of thing. But imagine how stunned I was when my disenchantment turned to curiosity and then ultimately enchantment. The film is "The Secret of Roan Inish," at the Charles, which turns into a magic fable of the natural order and the occasional kindness of the spirits.

Set in 1946, it opens haunted with death and melancholy. Fiona, a young girl whose mother had died and whose brother has disappeared, is sent to stay with her grandparents. They live by the sea, across a narrow passage from the isle of Roan Inish, where the seals cavort or sunbathe, depending on their mood. Little does she know the place is the magical home of a mythical race of Celtic beings called Selkies, half human and half seal.

For the longest time, the movie is a celebration of Celtic love of story. Everywhere Fiona (Jeni Courtney) goes, she runs into narrators, as the whole past of Roan Inish is called up. It's a kind of flashback-o-rama, as everyone chips in with a memory of history. The strangest of all is told by a fishmonger thought daft by the others, but the story he tells is the most enchanting.

Years back, one of his ancestors was walking on the beach when he came across a miraculous sight: A seal was transforming into a beautiful young woman. The director, American auteur John Sayles, doesn't have the budget to deliver this moment courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic, so he fakes it, convincingly enough to pass for illusion. The young man seizes the girl, falls instantly in love (and she with him), and from their union emerges a magic race of Celts who live by and take nourishment from the sea and just somehow seem to know things.

The tragedy that haunts the film is the loss of the brother, who one day washed out to sea in a cradle that was more like a dinghy and was never seen again. When Fiona says to the fishmonger that she misses her brother, he replies, "Oh, he's not gone. He's with another branch of the family." Soon she's finding footprints on the beach, and one magical afternoon she peers across the moors to see a naked boy dancing in the sunlight.

Sayles tells this story with a kind of straightforward clunkiness. Jeni Courtney is not the most expressive or spontaneous child actress I've seen, but neither is she one of those pint-sized American style show-biz pros at 8. She grows on you and doesn't ruin the movie.

For special effects, Sayles relies on nature itself: the mysterious allure yet potential danger of the sea, the majesty of the marine mammals whose eyes, like dogs', seem piercingly intelligent. It takes a while for the story to get going and it takes a while to adjust to the Irish brogue that in the early going seems impenetrable, but eventually, the magic takes over.

"The Secret of Roan Inish"

Starring Jeni Courtney and Eileen Colgan

Directed by John Sayles

Released by First Look Pictures

Unrated

***

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