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Based on a novel by Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture is an Irish drama with an ensemble cast and the final film set during the Second World War to be reviewed from the Glasgow Film Festival.
Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave) is an old woman who has been locked in a mental hospital for 50 years, accused of infanticide. Just as the patients are about to be transferred to a new hospital Rose gets to stay one last night and tells her psychiatrist Dr. Grene (Eric Bana) and nurse (Sarah Lynch) about how she came to the institution.
During the Second World War, the young Rose (Rooney Mara) flees from Northern Ireland to the safety of the Republic, working for her aunt in a picturesque village. Rose becomes the object of desire for the men in the village, including the local Catholic priest, Father Gaunt (Theo James), the head of gang, Jack (Aidan Turner) and the man she desires the most Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor) – an outcast because he decides to fight for the Royal Air Force.
The Secret Scripture had all the attributes to be a great drama: it’s based on an award-winning novel and explored many themes like the Anglo-Irish relationship, the power of the church and the medical institutions, it had a terrific cast who gave excellent performances – the non-Irish actors had strong Irish accents and looked glorious because of the period costumes and setting. The production attached a lot of talent in front and behind the camera: Jessica Chastain, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jeremy Irons were linked to the film and experienced TV director Thaddeus O’Sullivan (Into the Storm, Call the Midwife) was set to direct.
Acclaimed filmmaker Jim Sheridan ended up directing and co-writing the screenplay for The Secret Scripture and it marks the first time he made an Irish film since 2003. Sheridan’s directing acumen was fully on display, after having some huge career lows in America. The Secret Scripture was a lavish looking production, having terrific costumes (the hats are something to marvel at) and using the scenery of the beach, the woods and the village, even if it looks like something from a chocolate box – farm animals roam wild around the village.
When in the town The Secret Scripture shows that the Irish people are divided: most people hate the British, trumping any ideology and anyone who sides with them is made into a pariah. Although Ireland was neutral the war is ever-present, from ads in the newspaper to recruit Irish men to the RAF and Luftwaffe doing battle over Northern Ireland. This part of the film was similar to scenes in 2015’s Suite Française when the Nazis are advancing towards a small French town.
Rooney Mara is clearly a talented actress, giving strong performances in movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects and Carol and in The Secret Scripture she gives a solid Irish accent. As the young Rose she is made out to be the most desirable woman in the world and men would defy logic so they can be with her, whether it’s going AWOL from the military or be prepared to break their holy vows. Yet to everyone else the Young Rose is the source of scandal because of her various relationship, especially due to the fact she’s protestant.
When The Secret Scripture moves to the mental hospital it goes to similar territory. The Magdalene Sisters casts a big shadow over films of this ilk, dramas about the abuse women suffered at the Catholic Church, forced to give up their babies, have tarnished reputations and forced to do some sort of hard labor. The Secret Scripture also shares some similarities to films like Girl, Interrupted and Changeling – stories about women who were wrongfully incarcerated. The most interesting aspect of this part of the film is due to the fact that Rose has been in the hospital for so long all her behavior is interpreted and twisted in the context that she’s mentally ill.
What hampers The Secret Scripture is its ludicrous twist. Although the film is based on an acclaimed novel it came across as a storyline in Hollyoaks. Or as Lisa Simpson put it “It’s like something out of Dickens, or Melrose Place”. I predicted the twist half-way through the film and it didn’t soften the blow. It was properly better explained in the novel but it was just rushed in the film, like most of the subplot was cut.
The Secret Scripture is a safe, middle-of-the-road drama that will appeal to an older demographic. It is blessed with a high-calibre cast – attempts some deeper themes and looks impressive: yet is hampered by the ridiculous ending.