Coming off of the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Lawrence reviews The Secret Scripture; a film about a topic as Irish as it gets: religiously-rooted systemic oppression!
The Secret Scripture comes hot off the heels of the more recent revelations of the mass grave investigation at the Taum Maternity Care Centre. The film is unlikely to have been a direct response, but the news will be still fresh in the minds of many Irish cinemagoers, and the imagery resonates.
Eric Bana plays Dr William Grene, a psychiatrist called to assist with the transferral of patients from an aging Roscommon mental hospital to a modern facility. Specifically, his attention is drawn to one Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave). Roseanne has been kept at Saint Malachy’s Mental Hospital for over fifty years, accused of killing her new-born child; she’s been there so long she refuses to leave, though it’s clear the place haunts her. Over the years, she’s been keeping a diary hidden from the orderlies, scrawled over the pages of a bible (the eponymous “scripture”). Dr Grene and a sympathetic nurse (Susan Lynch) take it upon themselves to squirrel out the truth of Rose’s past, and here we enter the second narrative of the film, where the marrow is: Rose’s life in the 40s, played by Rooney Mara. We can see immediately she’s perfectly healthy, so all there is left for us to do is await the downwards spiral…
Melbourne-born Bana makes a valiant initial attempt with the Irish accent, unfamiliar with him as I was I was certainly fooled at first, but it cracks as the film progresses, and once you’ve sniffed it out, you’ll not lose the scent. Oxford-native Theo James fares better as Father Gaunt, the ambivalent young priest whose actions (and inactions) drive a lot of the plot. Really; everyone does a good, if rather unremarkable job. Rooney Mara plays it a little too safe, that vintage female repression justifying a maintained blank reservation for the majority of the film.
The Secret Scripture is Jim Sheridan’s tenth feature film; I understand he’s critically acclaimed, I can certainly see why. In particular, an impressive job is done to make this normal Irish rural town seem positively sinister. Not a rural town with a dark secret, mind you; just a rural town. No conspiracies, no esoteric cults of Yog-Sothoth (all-is-one in He etc.), just dismal weather and a classic example of how just small minds, loose lips and bad luck can utterly destroy a person.
However, the film is greatly let down by a third act twist that could frankly be considered Shyamalanesque. I have not read the book, perhaps this weakness lies at the source; in any case, the straight-laced seriousness with which the film treats this groaner of a swerve does preserve it some points, much in the same way a botched trapeze act could be spared some embarrassment if the performer broke both their legs with a flourish rather than a shriek.
All-in-all it’s perfectly harmless, it hits all the notes it should hit and you feel all the emotions you should feel. It squeezes a surprising amount of social complexity into the time that it lasts and it only slightly resorts to those small contrivances that are so quick to build up and ruin a movie. The whole thing has a gentle whiff of Brontë about it, so if that’s your cup of tea, drink greedily.