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Given his notorious reputation for cranking out the most politically-correct of films, it's a really pleasant surprise to watch this profoundly conservative effort by John Sayles.  Based on a 1959 novel by Rosalie Fry, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, Sayles' Roan Inish tells the story of a young girl, Fiona, who when her mother dies is sent to live with her grandparents on the Irish coast in the years immediately after WWII.  The family had long lived on the island of Roan Inish, in the company of seals, but they were relocated to Donegal during the war and now may have to move again, further inland.  There's an ineffable sadness about the old couple, the grandfather especially misses the island and mourns the lost way of life they enjoyed; the grandmother misses Fiona's brother, Jamie, who was swept out to sea in a wooden cradle when they were moving off of Roan Inish.  Fiona though is convinced that her baby brother still lives and, indeed, her cousin Eamon tells her that he's been sighted sailing around in his cradle boat.

Fiona's grandfather and cousins are only too happy to tell her tales about the family and Roan Inish, maintaining their strong ties to the island at least in memory and recitation.  Finally, one cousin, Tadhg--a "dark one" (dark of hair and eye like her brother was)--tells the story of how an ancestor captured a selkie, a seal-woman.  The selkies are said to swim ashore in seal form and then strip off their skins to bask in the sun as beautiful women, but if you can grab their skin before they slip away they are bound to you.  The family then is descended from this selkie, though one of her children eventually told her where to find the skin and she immediately swam off.

Fiona takes to visiting the island and spots Jamie herself, running naked and picking flowers, but he runs away and sails off in his cradle. She then convinces Eamon that the seals are keeping Jamie to make the family move back to the island, so the two set about secretly restoring the dilapidated huts and gardens, all the while trying to figure out how to coax the grandparents back to Roan Inish.

The film is beautifully shot, by Haskell Wexler, with a lilting Celtic soundtrack, and the cast, apparently professional but largely unknown here in the States, plays it straight down the line, as drama not fantasy.  Mr. Sayles never treats the audience as if we need convincing, nor stoops to treat the material ironically.  It is simply assumed that we will abandon reason and suspend disbelief, and we're quite happy to do so.  The whole is infused with a sentimental longing for tradition, a sense that life has a proper order and we our proper places in that order, and a disdain for change that is positively reactionary and very refreshing.  The viewer has no doubt that it is necessary for the Coneelly family, the descendants of the selkie, to live on Roan Inish and that the world is a better place with this balance restored.  It's all as anti-modern as can be and makes for a splendid old-fashioned movie experience, for the whole family or just for the adults.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Recommended films of John Sayles:
    -Shannon's Deal (1989)
    -Eight Men Out (1988)
    -Wild Thing (1987) (screenwriter)
    -Matewan (1987)
    -Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) (screenwriter)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Sayles (
    -FILM SITE: Sunshine State (Sony Pictures)
    -INTERVIEW: man.with.guts:  An interview with filmmaker John Sayles, director of the spanish-language film "Men  with Guns." (MICHAEL SNYDER, March 1998, Salon)
    -PROFILE: VIRTUE'S HACK: John Sayles makes movies with  all the right messages -- and no surprises, madness or life (LAURA MILLER, 7/29/96, Salon)
    -INFO: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) (
    -INFO:  The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -ESSAY: Forget the Alamo: reading the ethics of style in John Sayles's 'Lone Star.'.(Todd F. Davis, Fall 1998, Style)
    -ESSAY: The Ballykissangelization of Ireland (Ruth Barto, August 2000, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television)
    -ARCHIVES: "john sayles" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: "john sayles" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker, Meridian)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (BRUCE KIRKLAND, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Peter Stack, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Edward Guthmann, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Scott Rosenberg, SF Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Rita Kempley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Chris Hicks, Deseret News)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Dendry's Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Miles O'Dometer, Rambles)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Peg Aloi, Obsidian)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (Judge Gervais, DVD Verdict)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret of Roan Inish (And You Call Youself a Scientist)
    -REVIEW: of Lone Star (Jonathan Coe, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Men with Guns (Gerald Kaufman, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Sunshine State (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Sunshine State (ADAM NAYMAN, Eye)
    -REVIEW: of Sunshine State (Arthur Lazere, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW: of Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-Makers in Recent American Cinema, by Geoff Andrew (Steve Kurtz, Reason)


My family loved this film, especially my son. We had read a couple of books by Susan Cooper, The Boggart and The Boggart and the Monster, that introduced us to the idea of selkies. We were very excited to see them again in Roan Inish. I agree with the review, highly recommend the books by Susan Cooper.

- Andrew Geller

- Nov-06-2002, 15:02