The Secret of Roan Inish
Posted by J on August 27, 2008
The Secret of Roan Inish is about storytelling, particularly the Irish way, or at least the way we think the Irish should tell stories. This mode of storytelling is at once mythmaking and truth-telling. The stories are melancholic, but they are not to be taken as mere fairy tales. No, these are family legends, very serious matters for young Fiona Keneally and the relatives who tell her about her family’s past.
Fiona, in fact, has just lost her mother. Her younger brother once disappeared at sea in a bizarre accident. Her father has sent her to her grandparents to live, while he pursues work in the city, a tough task since World War II just ended and the local economy is slow. All this loss, but still Fiona is not alone. Her extended family is tight-knit, and she hears the stories about her ancestral past with wonder.
The movie pursues the possibility that Fiona’s lost brother may not actually be dead. If he’s not, he’s drifting around in his cradle, out there around the isle of Roan Inish. The Keneallys used to live on Roan Inish, but they moved eastward, maybe because — as Fiona’s grandmother says — the way east is toward the future. Going west, back to Roan Inish, is to head in the opposite direction.
The subtext of the movie is globalization. Fiona’s father is absent because of market forces. Midway through the movie, the Keneallys are told they must leave their home and move inland. Certain rich people from America want a summer home on the Irish coast. Fiona’s grandfather is grieved, because his way is the sea. Perhaps, as Fiona looks at the situation, the way home is westward.
The movie is socially conservative in the sense that it favors ancient family tradition to adoption of the individualistic lifeways offered by the global marketplace. It is similar to Whale Rider, another movie about a young Maori girl separated from her father, who learns the ways of the ancients while living with her grandparents. Some viewers may not appreciate the privileging of quasi-pagan myths and the cinematic blending of those myths with reality. To some extent, we agree with that negative sentiment, but the movie’s other themes and its cinematography make The Secret of Roan Inish a worthwhile view. Oh, and the storytelling. This movie knows how to tell them.