Based on the popular novel by Sebastian Barry, and helmed by experienced filmmaker Jim Sheridan – who is joined by an illustrious cast featuring the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara – everything is in place for this profound drama to be a real cinematic treat, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, despite having all the right notes in place, they just haven’t been played in the right order, resulting in a rather plodding and convoluted book-to-screen adaptation.
Set in Sligo, Ireland – Redgrave plays Rose, who has resided at a mental hospital across several decades, and is soon to be analysed by visiting psychiatrist Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana), as they seek to determine her future, given the building she now calls home is soon to be knocked down and replaced by a luxury apartment block. Hoping to either relocate or release her, she remains somewhat reluctant to adhere – and the doctor realises that if he is to sort out her future, first he must begin with her past.
The film proceeds to be told, for the most part, in flashbacks sequences, where Rose (portrayed as a younger woman by Mara) takes us through her life story, which begins during the Second World War. A new arrival in this small town, her beauty makes her a rather popular presence amongst the male community, including that of Jack (Aidan Turner) and Michael (Jack Reynor) – and even the local priest, Father Gaunt (Theo James). Steeped in romance and travesty, we learn of how a woman with her whole life ahead of her, found herself heading towards such a dark and destructive path.
While the use of flashbacks is seamlessly implemented, Sheridan has fallen on a similar hurdle many filmmakers do when adapting a novel – which is to include too much. A film is seldom allowed the same freedom and time to explore characters and stories in quite the same way literature can – and this suffers from not knowing what to leave out. The non-linearity does serve a dramatic purpose as ambiguity becomes a rather prominent theme as we yearn to discover how Rose has ended up in this situation, yet despite the compelling opening act, the narrative loses its way, with an underwhelming pay-off. It’s quite remarkable too how a film covering such a myriad of themes can grow so tedious in parts, perhaps a victim of being a jack of all trades – and master of none. It’s a shame this be the case for The Secret Scripture is undeniable a well made film, it’s hard to find many flaws on the surface – it’s well directed, and it’s well-acted too, and visually it’s absorbing, and yet it struggles to captivate in quite the way that the narrative demands, resulting in a film that’s simply all too forgettable.
Thankfully, however, the performances just keep the film’s head above water, with a collection of impressive, accomplished and nuanced displays. James again proves he can play elusive, intense roles with ease – easily dislikeable on screen (that’s a compliment, honest), following on from his turns in War on Everyone and The Inbetweeners Movie. But the real star of this show is Redgrave, which turns what is a disappointing piece of cinema, into a watchable one.