London Film Festival: The Secret Scripture

Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture,

Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture,

Does the exploration of Roseanne McNulty’s sexual identity in The Secret Scripture shed any new light on the complicated history of women’s rights in Ireland?

According to The Secret Scripture, a reputation for being pure is the highest card you can play as a woman in wartime Ireland. Mutterings of dalliances with members of the opposite sex outside of wedlock is enough to ruin a life entirely. A fascinating and involving topic that has the potential, if handled delicately, to expose and explore earthquake-scale prejudices against the female sex that we may still be feeling the quivers of today. However, whilst multifaceted, the presentation of female sexual identity in Jim Sheridan’s latest work is soiled by heavy-handed direction and schmaltzy plot reveals that act as a barrier to discovering any greater meaning.

Jim Sheridan’s filmography makes up a fairly confused patchwork. Some of his films are highly regarded by wide audiences, particularly those that feature his common companion fellow Irishman Daniel Day-Lewis. However, the majourity of his more recent projects have been met with indifference. Get Rich or Die Trying and Dream House were largely dismissed by critics and did little to solidify Sheridan’s place as a director of note away from his Irish roots. His filmography is massively varied and it appears difficult to pigeonhole him as being a certain type of director. His latest, The Secret Scripture, only works to further the inconsistency in his career.  With an elusive director at the helm, perhaps it can be no surprise that the film suffers from being unfocused and unsure of its intentions.

The source material, written by Sebastian Barry, was well received by critics and promises rich ground for adaptation for the screen. However, the film version, which hosts an impressive cast, is bogged down with over sentimentality and clunky directorial choices. In the initial sequence at a mental institution where we meet Roseanna McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave), a pounding piano sonata dominates and hints at the lack of subtlety which parades throughout the rest of the picture. The lack of nuance is distracting and it infects the each pore of the film, rending it near impossible to take its presentation of sensitive subjects seriously.

The story focuses on Rose, played by both Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara, and is told both in the now and 1940s rural Ireland. In the present, Rose’s residence at a mental institution is nearing an end as the building is set to be transformed into a luxury hotel.  Unsure whether her mental capacity is now balanced enough for her to reside outside of an institution, Psychiatrist Dr Grene (Eric Bana) is called to assess her. Alongside her nurse (Susan Lynch), they find a diary in which she has been detailing her life. She grants them access to her deepest memories and here, we are transported back to the 1940s to Rooney Mara’s Rose. The actor looks little like Redgrave, yet they do possess the same ability to instil a look with a painful level of riddled emotion that becomes characteristic of Rose. The film straddles life in two time zones and illuminates numerous occasions where Rose and wider members of her sex are mistreated because of their gender.

The film concerns itself with the rigidity of dating practises in rural 1940s Ireland, and alarmingly audiences may be able to recognise some parallels to life in 2016. The attention that local men pay to Rose ensures complications to her otherwise simplistic life there. After being told by Father Gaunt (Theo James) that women don’t normally look men in the eye who aren’t their husbands, the audience is aware that Rose is understood to be in someway abnormal. In a society with such strict regulations on how women are meant to behave, it’s difficult to ascertain what exactly it is that Rose does “wrong”. Predominately, it seems to be that her strikingly alluring appearance is the main factor, as she vocalises no beckoning to any men. Her demeanour is shy and proper enough to appease her aunt until the attention from males starts to build. After allegedly causing a scene of testosterone infused violence among her would-be suitors, Rose is isolated to a small run down shed on the outskirts of the village. From there, she enjoys a whirlwind romance with Michael McNulty and swiftly weds him. Angering the morally questionable Father Gaunt, he labels her a nymphomaniac in a letter and she is quickly carted off to an institution.

Distressed and mistreated, Rose finds herself at the mercy of a society that cares little for its women. From one dramatic peak to another, the progressions of the story is like a sugary meringue: the sugary hit is fine in the moment but an awareness that nothing more significant is difficult to ignore. You may be left wanting for something more substantial. If you are nourished on beauty alone, as some men in Rose’s village seem to be, then the sweeping, grand shots of the rugged Irish landscape may be enough to sustain you. The film excels as a love song to the Irish landscape with its crystal wide waters, lemon yellow plains and rugged mountain scenery.

Having recently consummated her marriage to Michael McNulty, it’s no surprise that Rose finds herself pregnant.  Two varying accounts about what happens to the baby occur. We must decide which version to believe. Rose is convinced throughout the film that her child is alive. Others say that she bashed her newborn’s skull in with a rock. After all the violence inflicted upon this woman, now she must bear the mask of monster is society’s eyes.  We are partnered with Dr Grene who takes it upon himself to solve the troubling mystery. The film is sympathetic toward Rose, and though the audience is encouraged to be suspicious about the details of her child, we are in no doubt of the pureness of her character despite the countless arguments against it.

The film is a sweeping, grand exploration of one women wrestling with her identity in an environment with strict decorum.  Seemingly it wants to criticise the tendency to define women as hysterical, but it does so be presenting a hyperbolic soap-esque drama. The Secret Scripture is soggy with over sentimental scenes and heightened dramatic recounts that take us away from a place of understanding and instead plonk the audience in once dramatic scene after another. The plot becomes convoluted and piecing together the narrative and relevance of each character is tricky.  The countless moments of abuse towards Rose and other women in her life are easily forgotten thanks to the myriad of distractions that dominate the film.

Rebecca Latham

About Rebecca Latham

Graduating from Sydney University in 2012, Rebecca moved back to England to pursue a career in Theatre. She has most recently been Project Administrator on The Old Vic 12 and in the past has worked with Raindance Film Festival and Arcola Theatre. She has been writing reviews for A Younger Theatre since 2013 and is interested in Theatre, Film and Literature.

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