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‘Roan Inish’ embarks upon fantastic, magical journey

By Daily Bruin Staff

February 2, 1995 9:00 pm

‘Roan Inish’ embarks upon fantastic, magical journey

By Lael Loewenstein

Daily Bruin Staff

Magical, mystical and visually lush, The Secret of Roan Inish is
a fresh and utterly original film from John Sayles. The story of an
Irish family who find love and redemption through their faith in
their legends and their land, Roan Inish (Gaelic for Seal Island,
it’s pronounced "Rowan Innish") is a jewel of a film.

That said, The Secret of Roan Inish may not be for all tastes.
It unfolds slowly and requires a tremendous leap of imagination to
embark on the film’s fantastical, mythic voyage. But if one is
willing to make the jump, it is well worth the journey.

The story follows 10-year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney), who goes to
live with her grandparents in a remote Irish seaside community
after her mother’s death. There she meets her young cousin Eamon
(Richard Sheridan) and becomes curious about the distant island of
Roan Inish, which she can see through her bedroom window. Now a
deserted island inhabited by seals, Roan Inish was once her
family’s home.

Fiona becomes indoctrinated into the myths of the land through
her encounters with the local inhabitants. Her grandfather tells
her how the family lost Fiona’s little brother Jamie, who was
accidentally swept away by the sea when they were preparing to
leave the island. There are rumors he still sails the waters in his

All wide-eyed and full of wonder, Fiona also listens earnestly
as the local fisherman Tadgh (John Lynch) tells her another tale,
perhaps even more fanciful than the last. Generations ago, he tells
her, one of Fiona’s forebearers married a "Selkie," an exotic woman
who was half-woman, half-seal, but who could live as a human while
on land. Together they bore many children and lived peacefully
until one day the Selkie returned to sea.

Both of these tales are presented as beautifully filmed, dreamy
segments that could spring from the mind of an imaginative child.
Because she is so impressionable, Fiona believes in the power of
the myths and determines to explore Roan Inish herself.

What she finds ­ and what happens because of that discovery
­ is in fact the secret of the island of Roan Inish. As
startling of a surprise as it is, it doesn’t seem impossible
because the film encourages its viewers to believe in the capacity
of human transformation and the inherent strength of the natural

As a result of the discovery, Fiona and her family make a change
that entails a certain sacrifice. They go back to Roan Inish, the
remote island where they will live a simpler ­ but harder
­ life. But the family is brought closer together through
their sacrifice and commitment.

Director Sayles has dealt with issues of community and culture
before in such films as Matewan, City of Hope and Return of the
Secaucus Seven. But never has he so successfully blended those
themes with the mysticism he evokes in Roan Inish. And for a
director who has so closely allied himself with the American ethos,
this very Irish film feels remarkably authentic.

Sayles has extracted fine performances from all his actors,
especially young Courtney as Fiona. Haskell Wexler, whose
celebrated cinematography made Matewan and Bound for Glory so
visually striking, makes an invaluable contribution here.

The Secret of Roan Inish leaves the viewer with indelible images
of waves lapping against the shore, omniscient seals staring from
their rocky perch, and a tiny child in his cradle floating

It is a memorable, seductively beautiful story that carries the
viewer along, just as surely as Jamie is carried out to sea.

FILM: The Secret of Roan Inish. Written and directed by John
Sayles. Starring Jeni Courtney, Eileen Colgan, Mick Lally, Richard
Sheridan and John Lynch. Opens today.

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