The Secret of Roan Inish

John Sayles takes a head-on approach to myth in this Irish fable and crafts one of his best and most beguiling films. Though the film is set on the west coast of Ireland – gorgeously shot by Haskell Wexler – language takes precedence. The Coneelly family is long on oral tradition. And Sayles (Passion Fish, City of Hope)drives the film with lilting words, spoken by an exceptional cast

Fiona (Jeni Courtney) learns much of her family history from grandfather Hugh (Mick Lally) and grandmother Tess (Eileen Colgan), including how her baby brother Jamie was swept out to sea in his cradle and lost. Her young cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan) embellishes the stories they tell about Roan Inish, the island of seals Fiona can see from her window. Another cousin, Tadhg (John Lynch), explains the legend of the Selkie (half-woman, half-seal). Fiona is fast convinced that the Selkie has saved Jamie. The film's gift at placing myth in a real context soon makes believers of us all.

Sayles' triumph is in making the language a living thing before the camera lets us see the wonders being described. His aim is to restore something the movies have lost after decades of visual overkill: the joy of listening. Listening is also a lost art, and this may be just the film to persuade rusty audiences to hone their skills. Alive with beauty, spirit and wit, Roan Inish is pure magic.

From The Archives Issue 702: February 23, 1995