Independent filmmaker John Sayles usually deals with fairly straightforward material, but he veered from that with this family drama based on the Irish legend of selkies – seals that can shed their skin and become human.
When a young girl named Fiona (Jeni Courtney) goes to live with her grandparents in a small fishing village in Donegal, Ireland, she hears all sorts of tales about her family’s past, especially of the time they used to live on the now-deserted island of Roan Inish. One of the oft-repeated ones is how her baby brother floated away in his cradle one day while the family was moving off the island. He was never to be found, though Fiona begins to wonder if maybe, just maybe, selkies have been protecting him all these years.
The Secret of Roan Inish is mostly a story about storytelling, and how folk tales and real life can intermingle. Sayles has cast a handful of expert yarn-spinners for the job, including Mick Lally as Fiona’s garrulous grandfather and John Lynch as a brooding older cousin. Lynch has a wonderful scene in which he answers her wondering with this: “I have no idea of the future. I can see the past quite well. And the present … if the weather’s clear.”
Working with legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Sayles applies a veneer of fantasy to the story sequences – including an image of a selkie shedding its skin – but my favorite moments are the magical realist ones: a shot of Fiona’s brother, now a chubby toddler, floating atop the sea in his cradle; a misty boat ride Fiona takes from her village to Roan Inish, accompanied by watching seals. These straddle that line between what’s real and what’s imagined – the place where movie magic is often made.