The Secret Scripture (2016)

  • Time: 108 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Jim Sheridan
  • Cast: Rooney Mara, Jack Reynor, Theo James


Roseanne McNulty must vacate the soon-to-be demolished mental institution in Roscommon, Ireland that she’s called home for over 50 years. The hospital’s psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene, is called in to assess her condition. He finds himself intrigued by Roseanne’s seemingly inscrutable rituals and tics, and her fierce attachment to her Bible, which she has over the decades transformed into a palimpsest of scripture, drawings, and cryptic diary entries. As Grene delves deeper into Roseanne’s past, we see her as a young woman, whose charisma proves seductive. We learn that she moved to Sligo to work in her aunt’s café, fell in love with a dashing fighter pilot), and that a local priest fell tragically in love with her.

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  • “My name is Rose McNulty and I did not kill my child.” So starts director Jim Sheridan’s period drama, The Secret Scripture, adapted from Sebastian Barry’s 2008 novel, which was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize. Practically oozing “prestige picture” from its every frame, it’s a lush and handsome-looking production featuring fine performances from an excellent roster of actors, some of whom arguably do their finest work to date, but there’s something ultimately lacking.

    The Secret Scripture certainly does not lack for narrative and thematic material. In fact, there may be too much going on for each element, once established and though relatively fleshed out, always ends up feeling peripheral. The film’s main focus and object of intrigue, obsession and scandal is Rose McNulty (Rooney Mara), whose arrival in a small village in Ireland during WWII sets off a chain of events that will land her in a mental asylum where she will spend the better part of her life. The venerable Vanessa Redgrave essays the role of the elderly Rose, whose recounting of her life to psychologist William Gene (Eric Bana) serves as the film’s framing device.

    The presence of Redgrave is both a blessing and a curse to the film. For one thing, she is superlative, easily blowing every actor off the screen like leaves off a dandelion in the middle of a hurricane. Her Rose is haunted by the memory of her love Michael (Jack Reynor), by her rumoured relationship with village priest Father Gaunt (Theo James), and by her baby whom she’s accused of killing but whom she believes is alive and will come to claim her one day. Redgrave compellingly conveys the anguish, the hopelessness, and the increasing surge of renewed hope as she at last finds someone to listen to her story. She is so superb that she renders all the scenes featuring the young Rose nearly superfluous and Mara, already tasked with a tricky role, has to work even harder to maintain the audience’s focus.

    Right from the jump, everything seems to conspire against Rose. Her independence marks her as a target for the narrow-minded villagers, who question her loyalties when not gossiping about her relationship with Father Gaunt. The judgemental priest isn’t the only man undone by her presence; so are Tailor (Tom Vaughan-Lawler), who constantly warns her about fraternising with shopkeeper Michael, and Jack (Poldark’s Aidan Turner), who seems to fall in love with her at first sight. Yet her heart belongs to the charming Michael, despite the fact that he’s barely there since he’s fulfilling his duties as a fighter pilot. Things come to a boil when Rose tends to a wounded Michael in the secluded cottage to which she’s been exiled by her aunt – their idyll will soon be disrupted by the irrationalities of Tailor and Jack, both of whom regard Michael as the enemy; and the dangerous jealousy of Father Gaunt, who convinces Rose’s aunt to commit her to the asylum on account of her “nymphomania.”

    Though Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson’s screenplay convincingly demonstrates how the regressiveness of the era punished any hint of female sexuality and Rooney wrings tremendous sympathy for the injustices Rose undergoes not just in the asylum but during a brief stint at one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries, there’s something that feels contrived about it all. Perhaps it’s because The Secret Scripture becomes too overwrought in this stretch and the emotional manipulations, especially in the third act, become too obvious.

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