Page to Screen: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

The Secret of Roan Inish
based on The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry

This winter break, I’ll be visiting Ireland on a school trip—after Christmas, I’ll be there for two weeks with a large group, dashing across Ireland to visit literary and cinematic sights of note. Considering my issues with travel, it’s going to be… interesting. Over the summer, we were given a list of films to watch to prepare ourselves for the trip; eager for my Intro to Film Studies class, I watched all of them. But I was dragging my feet about watching The Secret of Roan Inish; the cover art did not look very promising. I try not to judge media by their covers, but it’s tempting, especially when I so often turn out to be right.

The Secret of Roan Inish takes Rosalie K. Fry’s The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry and transplants it to Ireland. After being forced to move off of Roan Inish on Ireland’s west coast, the Conneellys have dispersed—while the grandparents remain on the west coast, their son and granddaughter, Fiona, have gone to the city. But Fiona is not much for city life and is soon sent back to her grandparents, who take her in with open arms. Fiona spends her days listening to family lore and playing on the island of Roan Inish, where the family still fishes. But when Fiona puts together the story of the selkie who married into the family and the disappearance of her baby brother Jimmy at sea, she sets out to save her brother.

The Secret of Roan Inish is a listless film. The main problem is that the film is poorly structured—not to mention the fact that Fiona, as played by Jeni Courtney, is remarkably unengaging. Courtney’s Fiona is utterly blank, delivering her lines quietly and with little to no emotion and weight behind them. We simply watch her go about her day, hear stories, and blankly wandering around Roan Inish. The film doesn’t even mention her little brother until halfway through, and it’s not until two-thirds of the way through the film that we learn she misses her brother and thinks he should live with people. So she spends a majority of the film without a motivation, wandering around without a purpose, which leaves the film without a purpose. I can deal with a slow film; Barry Lyndon is slow, for instance, but Barry more or less has a purpose in life and the cinematography is jaw-droppingly beautiful. But The Secret of Roan Inish manages to both be slow and boring.

Which is a shame, because the core story is actually fairly interesting—I think this is the first time I’ve seen selkies depicted on celluloid, and what a selkie it is! Susan Lynch, who plays the selkie in flashbacks, never speaks a word, but she gets something innately seal-like down in her manner and her low-tech transformation sequence hasn’t aged a day. The Conneellys conclude that Jimmy was taken by seals as a punishment for abandoning Roan Inish, since their family has some manner of seal blood in it—according to family lore, of course. There’s a lot of potential there for a fresh take on the traditional man versus nature conflict, where nature is angry at man for not tending to it instead of destroying it, complete with the ramifications of a industrializing society. (I haven’t a clue as to when this is supposed to be set; I’d say the 1950s, because that’s when The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry was written.) But the script goes out of its way to make this boring; stories told in flashback are mildly interesting, but watching Fiona wander blankly through an efficient, rather than beautiful or mystical, Ireland with nary a goal in her little head is the opposite of compelling film.

Still, there is something innately hilarious about watching a little boy run naked through the grass to his own cradle/sailboat as his sister listlessly cries “Jimmy” after him.

Bottom line: While The Secret of Roan Inish has a story with potential and a beautiful selkie in Susan Lynch, it’s boring, unengaging, and poorly structured—which isn’t helped by the fact that Jeni Courtney, who plays our protagonist Fiona, is a walking blank. Avoid.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

  1. WHAT. WRONG. NO.

    I watched this film when I was a kid and totally loved it. I haven’t seen it as a grownup but based on my COMPLETELY INFALLIBLE MEMORY I am sure that I would find it just as amazing now as I did when I was little. Soooooo….

  2. Well, if you’d taken the time to read the title card at the beginning of the movie, or listen to the dialogue, you would know that it was set in the late 1940’s, in the immediate aftermath of WWII.

  3. 1) “Courtney’s Fiona is utterly blank, delivering her lines quietly and with little to no emotion and weight behind them.” –> Fiona is a kid. How much weight do kids give what they say? Give me a break.

    2) “Blankly wandering around Roan Inish…” What are kids supposed to do on a barren island? Sorry, but there are no Chuck E. Cheese restaurants to go to.

    3) “So she spends a majority of the film without a motivation, wandering around without a purpose, which leaves the film without a purpose.” –> True she starts the film having no purpose, like a typical kid, but later she finds her purpose, which shows her character developing.

    • 1.) Not everyone is charismatic, and that’s perfectly fine! However, I think it’s fairly common to want the actors in your media to be engaging and charismatic. It’s why people will watch films for certain actors even if the rest of the film holds no interest for them. There have been plenty of great child actors—Saoirse Ronan’s work in Atonement at the age of thirteen is particularly arresting. Talk about charisma! On a much more reasonable scale, there’s Georgie Henley in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

      2.) There is a way to convey the sense that there’s little to do on that barren island without forcing us to sit through Fiona’s aimless wanderings. What time is devoted to those shots should be devoted to the story. Gus Van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry is infamous for depicting every second of a hike that goes wrong, making it quite a chore to watch. Off the top of my head, you could intercut Fiona’s wanderings with dramatizations of her grandfather’s stories. A montage would be another good choice.

      3.) The reason motivations are traditionally revealed in the first act of a dramatic text and not the third act is so that the audience can root for the character. For instance, Luke Skywalker begins Star Wars with “no purpose,” but soon is given a purpose and motivation with the death of his family and Obi-Wan’s urging to take on his father’s mantle and fight the Rebellion. Similarly, in a more structured or more tightly edited film, Fiona would begin the film as a carefree character, happy to be free of the city, but we would soon witness or be told of the disappearance of her little brother, giving her a motivation and a reason to root for her.

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