The Secret Scripture

THE SECRET SCRIPTURE. Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Jack Reynor, and Theo James. Directed by Jim Sheridan. Rated M (Mature themes, sex scene and coarse language). 108 min.

This Irish Film is based loosely on the novel of the same name written by Sebastian Barry, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2008.

It tells the story of an elderly Irishwoman in a mental institution, who is examined by a psychiatrist, who is asked by the Church to explore her past. The doctor has been summoned to do so by the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Sligo. Her background reveals an emotional triangle involving a fighter pilot in World War II, a deeply troubled Catholic priest, and a son who may or may not have been murdered. The film was shot in Sligo, Dublin, and Kilkenny in Ireland.

Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave) has been incarcerated in the institution for nearly 50 years, accused of murder. She was committed for brutally killing her newborn child, and for “sexual behaviour of an unwarranted nature”. Wanting desperately to prove she didn’t kill her son, and amidst periods of dementia, Rose tells her life-story to Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) and uses a Bible she wrote in, after the time she was admitted, to convince him. The doctor is intrigued by Rose’s fierce attachment to the Bible, which gives meaning of the film’s title, and he uses what Rose has written and what she is saying to explore the truth of what has happened to her.

The film shifts perspective from the hospital to show Rose as a young girl during the war. While living with her Aunt, Rose (Rooney Mara) meets and befriends a young RAF pilot, Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor), but also attracts the attention of other men in the village, one of them being Father Gaunt (Theo James), the local priest. Father Gaunt is tragically attracted to Rose, and, unable to control his feelings, he becomes jealous of the attention he sees other men giving her. Rose is trapped by the power of her own sexuality and is readily blamed by those around her for any feelings being expressed toward her. When Michael and Rose become lovers, Father Gaunt in an act of vengeance writes a damming report on Rose’s mental health, accusing her of nymphomania, and Rose is taken to a mental hospital where she is found to be pregnant. Michael McNulty is the father of her child, and the chain of tragic events leads to a devastating injustice. 50 years onwards, Dr. Grene searches among his family’s letters, checks on Church records, and reads a passage from Rose’s bible that tells him who Rose’s child is, and what happened to her son.

This is a well crafted movie that tackles Ireland’s complex war history at a painful time. It addresses the love attachments of those caught in that complexity, the biases of an Irish community that is more than ready to attribute blame, and the historical paternalism of the Irish Catholic Church towards women, especially. It struggles with the task of handling all its themes, and comes to an unexpected conclusion.

On the way to its conclusion, however, the film manifests some fine work. It holds its tension; the cinematography is visually striking; the musical score is brooding; Rooney Mara brings a quiet depth to her role; and Vanessa Redgrave is very impressive as an ageing Rose. But the film struggles with a shallow script, and Redgrave does her best with the film’s surprising resolution. The secret which vindicates Rose’s unjust incarceration strains belief, as the truth behind Rose’s “Secret Scripture”, written into the margins of her bible, suddenly unfolds as the movie finishes.

Along the way, the film stereotypes religious insensitivity, and overplays its scenes of physical and mental abuse. They push the film into melodrama and reduce its authenticity. Despite such problems, however, there are moments of sharp insight and character development which are helped particularly by the acting skills of Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, and Eric Bana. The film ends sentimentally, but movingly, and is almost - but not quite - an emotionally convincing story of love, tragic loss, and redemption.

Peter W Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and  Broadcasting

Transmission Films

Released December 7th., 2017

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