The Secret Scripture




An Irish tale that calls up unhelpful comparisons despite fine performances.

Secret Scripture, The

Theo James and Rooney Mara


This film finds the director Jim Sheridan returning home to Ireland after a disappointing spell in America and there's no doubt about this being a personal project. In addition to directing, he is a co-producer and, most significantly of all, he himself is co-author of the screenplay based on the novel by Sebastian Barry. Not knowing the original, I cannot say how faithful the film is to it but, for all of Sheridan's sincerity, the screen version is stronger in performances than it is as an example of successful storytelling.


There's no doubt that for most viewers The Secret Scripture will invite an unflattering comparison with Stephen Frears' Philomena (2013). Despite the popular appeal built in to its approach, that film was far more affecting in its treatment of a story about an Irish woman forced by nuns to give up her child born when she was an unmarried teenager. In The Secret Scripture the central figure, Roseanne, is an orphaned girl in her twenties who in 1942 is accused of having killed her own baby (an act that she denies) and who, in consequence, is committed to an asylum where she has spent the greater part of her life.  With her tale told in flashback and linked to a late reassessment by one Dr Grene (Eric Bana), Roseanne is played in the wartime scenes by Rooney Mara but by Vanessa Redgrave in the episodes, a substantial number, set in the 1990s.


Both actresses are on fine form and the film persuasively fills out its portrayal of life and attitudes in a village in County Sligo in the early years of the Second World War. The fact that Roseanne, brought there to live with an aunt, is attractive enough to turn the heads of several men in the village causes unjustified gossip about her. This is further aggravated by the fact that one of these men is the local priest (Theo James) and another, the one that Roseanne loves and who makes her pregnant after a secret marriage, is a shopkeeper (Jack Reynor) who, to the anger of the IRA and its supporters, has chosen to fly with the RAF.


But, if the set-up largely convinces, the plot development seems grossly contrived - and not least the film's denouement. Even earlier one has regretted the unnecessarily frequent use of a music score by Brian Byrne (Redgrave and Mora can find all the intensity needed without this background addition and, when it comes to utilising the Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven may well be turning in his grave). Where Philomena carried its audience with it, this film's conclusion offers a far greater challenge to belief. It's a shame when so much good work has been put in, especially by the cast and in particular by the film's two distinguished leading actresses.




Cast: Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Jack Reynor, Theo James, Eric Bana, Susan Lynch, Aidan Turner, Adrian Dunbar, Pauline McLynn, Aisling O'Sullivan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.


Dir Jim Sheridan, Pro Rob Quigley, Jim Sheridan and Noel Pearson, Screenplay Jim Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson, from the novel by Sebastian Barry, Ph Mikhail Krichman, Pro Des Derek Wallace, Ed Dermot Diskin, Music Brian Byrne, Costumes Joan Bergin.


Ingenious Senior Film Fund/Voltage Pictures/Irish Film Board-Vertigo Films.
108 mins. Ireland/UK/USA. 2016. Rel: 19 May 2017. Cert. 12A.