London Film Festival 2016

The Secret Scripture review: Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave head up an impressive cast in this new adaptation of the 2008 bestseller by Sebastian Barry.

The Secret Scripture review by Paul Heath, LFF 2016.

The Secret Scripture review
The Secret Scripture review

Jim Sheridan returns to his Irish roots after an American sabbatical with the likes of Brothers and the previous Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. In his first film in his homeland since 1998’s The Boxer (has it really been that long?) Sheridan focuses on the literary work of Sebastian Barry and his 2008 novel of the same name.

We begin the film alongside Eric Bana‘s psychiatrist Dr, Stephen Grene who is summoned to a rural part of Sligo, Ireland to assess the mental state of seventy-something in-patient Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave). Lady Rose, as she is referred to, has resided at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital for nearly five decades and, now that the property is set to be turned into a luxury hotel and spa, she must be relocated to a new facility, or, if the doctor deems her fit, be released. Aided by one of the nurses (referred to only as ‘Nurse’ – though played brilliantly by Susan Lynch), Grene stumbles across Rose’s bible, a book which contains the secret scripture of the title which may unlock secrets of her past.

The majority of the film is told in detailed flashback where Lady Rose recounts her time before she was committed and how she came to be locked up for the majority of her life. Starting with a devastating event, the apparent killing of her only child, Lady Rose takes us back to the time of World War II and her arrival from Belfast to rural Sligo and her days as a young woman working for her aunt in a self-proclaimed up-market coffee shop in the centre of town. Young Rose, portrayed by an ever-impressive Rooney Mara, is the talk of the town and the object of many men’s affection. She brushes most of it off, but does attract the advances of working-class lad Jack (Aiden Turner) and the local shopkeeper, the tobacconist turned RAF fighter pilot Michael McNulty. The story charts the relationship between the two aforementioned lads and Rose, along with that of an over-enthusiastic, though deeply attracting local vicar, Father Gaunt (Theo James). There’s also a sinister chap named Tailor (Tom Vaughan-Lawler) who is present to bafflingly warn Rose to stay away from all of them.

Redgrave’s voice-over and occasional trips back to the present (or is it early 1990s judging from the cars, dates and ages involved) guide us through the rest as the events of 1940s Ireland play out to lead us to the fateful night when Rose gives birth to her son.

The Secret Scripture is an intriguing, very well-constructed yarn – a welcome return for Sheridan to his roots for a story that he also adapts from the source material with co-writer Johnny Ferguson, the late scribe whose credits include the likes of Gangster No. 1. The Secret Scripture is stunning to look at and very well-edited, despite the fact that the story sometimes makes us wonder just what on earth is going on and where Sheridan and co. are taking us. That said, the group of characters are mostly ones we enjoy the company of, particularly the young Rose, an excellent Rooney Mara and young love Michael – a fleeting Jack Reynor. While the story sometime stumbles into schmaltz and cliché, there’s always enough going on to keep us engaged. Theo James shows maturity as an actor in the role of the sinister Father Gaunt and even manages to portray sleaze – even through those smoldering good looks. Bana attempts an Irish accent and mostly nails it and is perfectly fine as the present day Grene, but it is Vanessa Redgrave who, of course, steals the show as her wonderfully staged Lady Rose.

For a film which doesn’t really surprise as it reaches its very predictable climax, and its ever-so-soapy-plot-beats, there a lot to like about Sheridan’s latest – a neat, rounded affair its biggest asset being the fine performances from its very talented and extremely watchable cast.

The Secret Scripture review by Paul Heath, October 2016.

The Secret Scripture is currently awaiting a UK release date.