The promise of a long-awaited Jim Sheridan return to his Irish roots on screen, complete with the exciting cast assembled, is enough to pique the interest of many a film fan – as the writer-director’s new drama The Secret Scripture is finally upon us. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara and Eric Bana amongst others, this time-lapsing tale also promises a love triangle and a mystery in one. Though it has all the ingredients in place – being based on the moving and politically-charged 2008 novel by Sebastian Barry that was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, it falls solely on the talents of its cast to see it through to completion.
The present-day story follows an elderly patient called Rose (Redgrave) who has been incarcerated for 50 years in a mental hospital, namely for killing her newborn. While there, Rose has documented her earlier life experiences and thoughts in the margins of a bible, her ‘secret scripture’. As the hospital is on the verge of being demolished, Dr William Grene (Bana) decides to investigate events leading to Rose being placed in their care.
We head back to 1940s Ireland, where the young Rose (Mara) arrives in a small village and unintentionally attracts the affections of three local men; pro-British pilot Michael (Jack Reynor), Republican Jack (Aidan Turner) and the local priest, Father Gaunt (Theo James). A combination of political, religious and social issues sees Rose banished to live alone, before being accused of a heinous crime and confined for the rest of her life.
Mara is as alluring to watch as ever, with her haunting expression and knack for saying very little but portraying a lot is in full swing here. It has to be as there is little else for her to build on, in terms of character motivation. There seems to be pieces missing to Rose’s overall puzzle, which is frustrating, even though you hope (in anticipation) that those gaps will be filled eventually in the storyline.
Indeed, Rose is meant to be something of an enigma but comes across as almost disengaged and unfeeling. The problem with the lack of back story is younger Rose does not marry well with emotive older Rose, played by Redgrave. The only thing we can empathise with – especially as a woman – is the restrictive nature Rose must abide by in latter-day times and not being allowed to live independently. This hostility in her nature makes the love scenes less convincing, like there is missing chemistry needed for the love triangle to resonate. Again, this is no reflection on Mara’s talents, just highlights the narrative holes further. James dominates their scenes as the scheming priest as he gets to portray more of a spectrum of emotion for Gaunt.
Redgrave’s commitment to fully fleshing out older Rose is highly evident – almost over theatrical at times. However, it’s a dichotomy between the fragility of vulnerable Rose and the strong voice critical to telling the story. Again, the dramatics are present, but due to the schmaltzy ending, Sheridan’s take on the novel proves somewhat televisual and melodramatic. Bana’s Grene merely provides the authority to the story, and the big reveal – that you can see coming earlier on – means when he gets to address the needs of his own character’s feelings too late in the film, almost rendering the twist superfluous.
That said the overall power of the story is female suppression across the ages that really hits home – subtly interwoven, but accompanied by that unsavoury feel of demonising the independent screen female again. It is this lasting effect The Secret Scripture cultivates well using the two Roses, even if we crave more of younger Rose’s motivation and less of older Rose’s dramatics. Sheridan’s homecoming should have been more charged, not just emotionally, but politically and religiously too – just like his previous work.
The Secret Scripture is released on May 19th