TIFF 2016 – The Secret Scripture (2016)
Back in the previous century Jim Sheridan could do little wrong. He worked repeatedly with Daniel Day-Lewis after all, an actor not known for throwing himself into any old project. Then came a fall, precipitated predictably enough by a move from the old world to the US. Soon the man behind My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father was directing 50 Cent on a project that proved by no means his worst work stateside.
It’s no surprise hopes were high for his return to the Emerald Isle, especially when the project in question comes from Sebastian Barry’s acclaimed novel and has Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara and Eric Bana signed up. Alas The Secret Scripture is no return to form. An obsession with silly plot developments, underwritten characters and a ridiculous twist turn it into a TV movie version of Philomena.
The premise is a familiar one of institutional abuse and Catholic Church complicity. Sheridan opens in the present, Bana’s Dr. William Gene on the way to a mental institute soon to be shut down. He must sign-off on Roseanne McNulty so she can be transferred to a new facility. Redgrave plays the elderly Rose, a woman accused of murdering her baby in a fit of insanity that never went away. She certainly doesn’t seem in the best of health, chattering away to herself, walking the corridors in a daze, and spouting enigmatic sentences at all who come near.
With the elderly Rose in place to tell her story, we jump back to the past to the years of WWII, Rooney Mara stepping in as young Rose. For a while it’s all rather intriguing, a handsome period drama that makes promises it can’t keep. Family tragedy sends her south from Northern Ireland to live with relatives. She gets a job at her aunt’s temperance café, and settles into the community. Mara is quite possibly the best American actress of her generation, with an ability to sink deep into roles. Her demeanour always suggests she’s holding something back, keeping her characters at arm’s length until the moment is right. She does something similar here but the writing doesn’t back her up.
Rose falls prey to the men of the town, many of whom are captivated by this beautiful young woman. They make their moves and when she rejects them she somehow ends up accused of acting improperly. The worst transgressor is the implausibly handsome local priest played by Theo James. He practically turns into a stalker yet the shame attaches to Rose who never once steps out of line. Other suitors include Aidan Turner who is at least respectful. None of it matters. She only has eyes for Jack Reynor’s shopkeeper, despite the two of them sharing no more than five minutes together before he goes off to war. He’ll reappear later, wasting Air Force resources to buzz the town in a display of bravado for Rose. Then he’ll crash, somehow managing to end up in a tree not more than a couple of hundred meters from her remote woodland cottage.
Coincidence is no stranger to The Secret Scripture, nor is a ropey plot turn or two. After the lunatic priest gets her committed on very tenuous grounds, and a few shenanigans with the baby are revealed, the story stutters towards an astoundingly irritating twist, admittedly taken straight from the novel. Like a bad magician, a rabbit is reached for only to find its chewed its way through the hat and bolted. Attempting to wrap things up neatly only makes it worse, dotting i’s and crossing t’s no one should have written in the first place.
The Secret Scripture manages the almost impressive task of coaxing overripe performances from Mara and Redgrave who are left trying to force decisive moments in a desperate attempt to salvage something. They can’t. No one can.
Director: Jim Sheridan
Stars: Rooney Mara, Aidan Turner, Theo James
Runtime: 108 mins