Given the basic level of taste demonstrated by the American public, it’s difficult to determine how a filmmaker as talented and thoughtful as John Sayles manages to survive.
The miracle is that Sayles manages not only to survive but to thrive. Then again, maybe it’s not so much a miracle as it is good business management.
Since the late ‘70s, Sayles has pounded out, or been hired to fix, the occasional junk script - “Piranha,” “The Howling,” “Alligator,” “Clan of the Cave Bear,” etc. - to fund his own directorial efforts.
And since the first of those, 1980’s “The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” Sayles has shown that he has little regard for what is cool and flashy and Hollywood hip.
“Secaucus Seven,” for example, was a precursor to the immensely more popular, but arguably no more effective, “The Big Chill.” It featured no-name actors (except for David Strathairn, a then-unknown Sayles regular), a talky script and not a single car explosion.
Subsequent Sayles’ efforts have been every bit as rigorously noncommercial: “Matewan” concerns a West Virginia miners’ strike; “Eight Men Out” tells the story of the Black Sox Scandal; “Passion Fish” involves a former actress attempting to deal with paralysis; “City of Hope” is an experimental, ensemble-cast look at life in a big city.
Throughout, like the curious craftsman he is, Sayles has played with theme as well as form and function. So it should come as no surprise that his latest effort is nothing less than an Irish fantasy.
“The Secret of Roan Inish” may have sprung from Sayles’ mind (by way of a 1957 Irish novella titled “Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry”), but it has the feel of mythology. It involves the Coneelly family, who left their traditional island home of Roan Inish (set off the western coast of Ireland) during World War II.
Little Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney), whose mother has just died, comes to live with her grandparents, Hugh (Mick Lally) and Tess (Eileen Colgan). As airily beautiful as a wood sprite, Fiona learns about the sea from her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan) but picks up on her own the cause of the sadness that plagues the Coneellys.
It has to do with a “selkie,” a sea spirit that slips through the waters like a seal but can take the shape of a human. It has to do with one particular selkie becoming a part of the Coneelly family, creating a line of “dark ones” with magical powers.
Mostly, though, it has to do with Fiona’s lost baby brother, Jamie, who disappeared during the infamous evacuation - gliding out to sea in his cradle as if some unseen hand were guiding him home.
It is through Fiona, independent and resourceful as only a child born to fantasy can be, that the Coneellys again have the chance to be at one with the sea and to make peace with the spirits of their own past.
“The Secret of Roan Inish” is a film that tempts one to use such a cliched, blurb-wannabe phrase as “pure magic.” But it would be difficult to come up with a more apt description.
Sayles, a true filmmaker who not only writes but also directs and edits his movies, captures the essence of dream-weaving and what that process means to those who depend on such escapism to weather the essential harsh nature of life.
Can’t deal with the idea of a young child drifting away on the ocean tide? Just reinvent the tragedy the way you’d like it to be: that the boy has been spirited off by friendly spirits and is just waiting for the right time to come back - sailing his cradle to shore as one would a miniature ship.
Sayles’ movies are the stuff of dreams, and “The Secret of Roan Inish,” through the eyes of one young girl, is how he works his true magic.
Thriving as he does so.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Secret of Roan Inish” *** 1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written, edited and directed by John Sayles, starring Jeni Courtney, Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan, Richard Sheridan and John Lynch Running time: 1:43 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to a PG)