They say the East is our future and the West is our past.
Based on the children's novel "Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry" by Rosalie K. Fry is writer/director John Sayles' (Men With Guns, Lone Star, Return Of The Secaucus Seven) 1993 film, The Secret Of Roan Inish. Slowly but surely, the films of Sayles, probably America's best independent filmmaker, are finding their way to everyone's favorite format and I could not be happier. With The Secret Of Roan Inish, we see the release of Sayles' most popular commercial venture and, as was the case on Columbia's release of Limbo, we are also given one of the director's fabulous commentaries.
Facts of the Case
Sent to live with her grandparent's because of her father's inability to climb out of the bottle, ten-year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney) finds more at the place of her birth than she ever thought possible.
There she learns the legend of the Selkie. The Selkies are half-women and half-seals who have come ashore and cast aside their seal skin, living as humans for a time to marry and have children. Fiona's mother was such a creature who was trapped by Fiona's father and forced to live life with him until she found where he had her skin hidden. Once found she returned to the sea, and with her took her son Jamie (Cillian Byrne).
Learning the legend of the Selkies from her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan), she is determined to find her long lost brother. With Fiona's search ongoing, her grandparents have found out that their precious land is being purchased. People who are defined by where and how they live, this is an occurrence that leaves her loved ones shattered. Being the strong willed child that she is, Fiona will attempt to knock out two birds with one stone. Returning to the island of the seals, Fiona and Eamon build a house from scratch, while a certain curly headed four-year-old begins to make appearances floating on the waters around the isle.
In a term that is thrown around and constantly misused, The Secret Of Roan Inish is a family film in the best sense of the word. It is a literate and lyrical mood piece about love and discovery. It is a movie that refuses to talk down to younger viewers, but is also engaging enough to keep the most jaded of arthouse moviegoers consistently interested.
Using a legend that exists in both Scottish and Irish folklore, the world created for The Secret Of Roan Inish is one where the Selkie actually exists. It is a reality that Sayles accepts, nurtures and connects with. Along with the great cinematography of Haskell Wexler (Matewan, Days Of Heaven), writer/editor/director Sayles creates a beautiful, almost otherworldly existence for his characters to live within. Light and shadow give weight to the characters lives and Wexler's moody lighting creates a sense of wonder, mystery and youthful awe.
The thing that has always impressed me about the work of John Sayles is that everything he does is completely different from what he has done before. He is a true maverick of the film industry, and every movie created by him is a cause for celebration and something of which to take notice.
Working with child actors is one the most notorious difficulties that any director can face, and working with children who have never performed before makes it doubly so, yet Sayles coaxes work out of his stars that is both mature and grounded in reality. Little Jeni Courtney is especially impressive as Fiona. The movie succeeds or fails on her effort, and she comes shining through. With huge eyes that show both happiness and fear, she has a glow about her and a tangible presence that cannot be taught. She moves in and out of her scenes with a natural ease and is helped greatly because the camera obviously loves her.
In the more mature roles Sayles wisely cast veteran actors Mick Lally (Circle Of Friends, A Man Of No Importance), and Eileen Colgan (Angela's Ashes, My Left Foot) as little Fiona's grandparents, Hugh and Tess. Both add to the experience of the movie by turning in excellent work. Not a false note can be found in either performance and together they ground the film and its fantasy aspects in a lived in sense of reality.
Framed in the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and given a new anamorphic transfer, Columbia turns in a beautiful viewing experience. Colors are accurately conveyed with the film's muted color scheme posing no problem. Darkness and dimly lit sequences show great depth, detail and clarity. There is also excellent contrast between actor's flesh tones and the gorgeous Irish countryside vistas. I could detect no signs of either edge enhancement or pixel breakup anywhere in the movie. To top it off, outside of a few blemishes, the print used is in excellent shape, especially considering this is a low budget affair. All in all, another lovely job from Columbia.
Sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and while not showing off the bells and whistles of my sound system, it certainly got the job done. Like the visual work of Haskell Wexler, the music of composer Mason Daring (Music Of The Heart, Dogfight), gives the film much of its needed atmosphere and detail. The mix is fairly expansive and combines music, effects and dialogue together quite well. There is no background hiss or distortion present to distract from a very effective job. From what I remember of the movie when it first came out (I saw it twice), this is the best I have heard The Secret Of Roan Inish sound.
The main feature of this release is a scene specific commentary track from John Sayles. Those who have heard his commentary on the wonderful movie Limbo know that the man is interesting, well prepared and very informative. This is certainly the case here as well. With very few gaps or pauses, Sayles talks the entire way through the movie. He jumps from performance notes, to shot selection to what and where the real seals are throughout the film, not to mention the research of the various legends which the film revolves around. Also as a note of interest, in the commentary track, Sayles pretty much gives the simplest and most eloquent explanation of what pan and scan is and why it is done, explaining, again in simple terms, why widescreen is better. It is certainly one of the most complete tracks I have heard recently and it makes me wish Columbia had included commentary on their release of his movie Passion Fish.
Also included is a talent file for John Sayles and several theatrical trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm pretty pleased with this release and I don't really have any complaints with either movie or disc.
I will however use this forum as an open plea to all involved parties to release everything else by John Sayles. From his first movie Return Of The Secaucus Seven (which if you have seen it, you know it inspired Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill), to the wonderful City Of Hope, to his latest film, Men With Guns. The man may not be the best known filmmaker, but he is one of country's best.
Also a special note to the powers-that-be at Artisan Home Entertainment. Please take the time and the expense to redo the Sayles' masterpiece Matewan, giving it the anamorphic widescreen transfer it deserves as well as commentary from Mr. Sayles. It is truly an important American film and deserves better than a bare bones, pan and scan release.
The Secret Of Roan Inish is a charming and warm film that is full of atmosphere and mystery. It is also a film the entire family can sit around together and enjoy. In a long line of classic movies showcasing the independent American spirit of one of our generations most talented artists, The Secret Of Roan Inish is one of John Sayles' most assured works and is given solid treatment by Columbia. For the reasons stated above, it is well worth your time as well as your money. Definitely a movie to come back to over the years, this is one for the collection.
No hung jury here. It is rare to find a movie so simple yet so beautifully complex and one that can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter what generation they come from. For those reasons, John Sayles and The Secret Of Roan Inish are acquitted of all charges in record time. This judge thinks Disney could learn a thing or three about how to do family films by watching and re-watching this little classic.
That is all I have. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director John Sayles
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