THE SECRET SCRIPTURE
Director: Jim Sheridan
Screenwriters: Jim Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson, based on the eponymous novel by Sebastian Barry.
Runtime: 108 mins.
Australian Release Date: 7 December 2017
Previewed at: Chauvel Cinema Paddington, Sydney, on 7 December 2017.
The Secret Scripture, directed and co-written by acclaimed Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, is based on Sebastian Barry’s Man Booker Prize-nominated 2008 novel of the same name. It centres on the reminiscences of a woman who was placed in an Irish state mental institution for almost half a century - after her papers were signed by a local priest who accused her of ‘nymphomania’. Barry based his book on a story he heard from his mother and, while possibly not accurate to the letter, it’s certainly representative of the plight of many young Irish women at the time. The setting is the period between the wars when the Irish state was emerging and women were engaged in their own battles relating to their sexuality and their independence, unsettling the Church and the male-dominated national body politic of the day, both of which ruled ‘the weaker sex’ with an iron thumb.
The film opens with the arrival of psychiatrist Dr William Grene (Eric Bana) at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital to assess long-term patient, Roseanne “Rose” McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave). The hospital has been sold and the doctor needs to decide whether Rose can be released or must be transferred to another institution. Intrigued by her fierce determination and courage against all adversity, having spent years incarcerated against her will, Grene discovers that she was accused of killing her baby in 1942 and that Rose has documented her thoughts and history in between the pages of her bible. They record the events leading up to the birth of her child through drawings and her personal reminiscences. He learns that Rose was a beautiful young woman who went to work in her Aunt’s café in Sligo. It was the early 1940s, during the Irish Emergency when Ireland was trying to remain neutral in WWII, and she becomes the centre of attention of some of the village lads, who are divided into Nationalists and others who are keen to join the British in the fight against the Nazis. She is chatted up by a young man Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor), who’s considered a British sympathiser and who is about to take to the skies as a fighter pilot in the RAF. A Protestant, Rose is also pursued by the local Catholic priest Father Gaunt (Theo James), who is besotted by her even though their friendship is considered scandalous by the locals. Seeing that Rose is stirring up the young men of the village, her aunt banishes her to an isolated hut far from town, but that’s not the end of her relationships with the sky-pilot or the actual pilot. On the contrary, her personal troubles are only just beginning.
Sheridan’s film is a beautiful visual representation of the period and he has gathered a stellar cast to expose this sordid side of Irish history. Rooney is compelling, James is insidious and Reynor is very watchable. Redgrave exudes a pathos which seems a bit contrived at times but is generally affecting. The problem with The Secret Scripture is that there are so many plot holes and unlikely coincidences in the script. Perhaps the explanation for these was left on the cutting room floor or maybe it is too complex a tale to be fully realised on screen. When the truth is revealed, rather than being overwhelmed by it, you are left feeling “well, I saw that coming a mile off.” Lovers of the book may be disappointed but, then again, they may be able to fill in the gaps in the story and just revel in the beauty of Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography and Brian Byrne’s passionate score. Some may find the film worth it for those experiences alone.