The Secret Scripture is the gripping new drama steeped in wartime Irish history from director Jim Sheridan, based on the 2008 novel by Sebastian Barry shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Roseanne McNulty is an elderly Irish woman who has spent her lifetime in a dismal psychiatric hospital, now on the verge of demolition to make way for a hotel and spa. When a sympathetic psychologist is invited to St. Malachy’s to reassess her case prior to her removal, a past laden with romance, mystery and tumult is unearthed as she relives her story through the reading of a diary she has kept in secret through the duration of her incarceration.
A stellar cast deliver the film’s dark and traumatic tale, re-envisioned in stark colour by Sheridan. The persistently brilliant Vanessa Redgrave is the 1990s McNulty, her mind and physicality visibly weakened by 50 years of abuse and festering injustice, a glimpse of which is provided by the hospital chief’s insensitive destruction of her belongings, including the bible whose margins she scrawled upon to commit her story to paper.
An enigmatic Rooney Mara plays the stunning, youthful Rose, whose dark-haired, green-eyed beauty she is told she herself doesn’t grasp the power of. As men fall under what is perceived to be “her spell”, infatuated with her to the point of violence, she becomes the ultimate victim of her own allure.
The unavoidably handsome Theo James plays one such man, with a nuanced performance that belies the inner battle the “priest who wants to be a man” must fight with his feelings – and lust – for Roseanne, which ultimately result in a destructive obsession. A stocky boy-next-door fighter pilot, Michael McNulty (Jack Raynor), emerges as the true object of Roseanne’s affections but is targeted by the local IRA gang for his pro-British sympathies. As a web of male figures, facilitated by threatened and disapproving women in the provincial community, scramble to contain Rose’s exotic city-born independence, throwing her into the asylum to keep her safe from her own “nymphomania”, the film reveals the taboo nature of female sexuality within the oppressively patriarchal religious ideology of the time.
Eric Bana, while predominantly a listening ear to Redgrave’s electrotherapy-destroyed character, is brilliant as Dr William Grene, who while fixated on digging up the truth behind Roseanne’s repetitive protests of innocence of killing her newborn child, inadvertently finds his own past brought under the spotlight.
Cinematography from Mikhail Krichman results in a beautifully rendered 1940s Ireland aesthetic, contrasted with the wild, rustic backdrop of County Sligo’s Atlantic beaten coast and bleak interiors of a brutal institution, which set off the engrossing story of insidious forces within the church and unforgiving society McNulty’s life has been at the mercy of.
Sheridan’s film draws its viewers into a heartbreaking story of love, loss and unspeakable truths that become all the more painful to watch knowing that they are based on a reality long repressed in Irish history, much in the vein of Stephen Frears’s Philomena. While arguably overly sentimental, particularly towards its too-neatly drawn close, the movie’s gritty edges and lovingly crafted visuals redress the balance to leave an unforgettable watch.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 15th May 2017.
The Secret Scripture is released nationwide on 19th May 2017.
Watch the trailer for The Secret Scripture here: