THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH is the great John Sayles most offbeat film, leaving his incisive chronicling of Americana for a brief trip to the coast of Donegal, Ireland and a gentle fable about a girl and a selkie. A selkie is part seal, part human, all Gaelic in its whimsy and wistfulness.
Adapting from a Scotland-set book,”The Secret of Ron-Mor Skerry”, Sayles wrote, directed and edited a family film that spends its 103 minutes leisurely, creating mood instead of set-pieces, quiet and thoughtful rather than silly or syrupy, as ‘family film’ often threatens. Incorporating tales within the tale—half of the running time is spent with the handful of characters relating family stories—Sayles has 10-year old Fiona (Jeni Courtney) discover blood links to the sea that run deeper than her kindly grandparents fishing livelihood.
Warmly and unobtrusively shot by Haskell Wexler, backed with fittingly lyrical musical choices by Mason Daring, with nice work from actors Eileen Coglan, Mick Lally, Richard Sheridan and John Lynch, who keep the blarney muted. Sayles wisely plays the faerie tale straight, which adds to the gradually building spell.
Courtney is/was a pretty little girl—I could see a major crush in the works if I was in 5th-grade—and she’s a natural. Only did one more movie after this (a drama, Nothing Personal–haven’t seen it) and then—who knows?—maybe she was too grounded for show business: an Internet search offers no clues. Another cute addition is a tot named Gerard Rooney, who gets some chuckles going by running about starkers. His bravery for putting up with the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in Donegal Bay is quite impressive. The seals are neat, too (they always are).
Sayles’ movies have a following, but they’ve never been big boxoffice, and I’m surprised that this little outing actually made around $6,100,000 in the States (although it cost $5,700,000, so it took a loss). It could use some trimming, ten or fifteen minutes—I found my attention wandering several times. There has been a cherished and long-standing running-joke going between myself and two of my best friends who I first saw this with when it came out in 1994. I was either too full of energy (Friday night, seven o’clock), or too stoned (what are the odds?), but I just didn’t get it at all, and my friends loved it. Since I am a Sayles booster, respect my (quite smart) friends opinions on movies, and generally feel guilty about Mankind and My Tremendous Role In It, I was left wondering what Decency Deficiency I possessed that kept me un-swooned by Fiona & the Selkies (no, Bev, it wasn’t because it didn’t have any U-Boats or hurricanes!). Watching again, 21 years later, I realize it was just a case of right film, wrong mood. Can I slink back over for margaritas now? Irish coffee?….