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The Secret of Roan Inish

John Sayles is arguably the finest storyteller in independent American cinema, and his 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish, his most popular movie to date, is both a lovingly told tale and a tribute to the magic of storytelling. The film is based on a childhood favorite of Sayles' long-time partner Maggie Renzi, a 1957 novella titled "The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry," by Rosalie K. Fry. In the director's commentary, Sayles says that when Renzi found a copy of the story at a used-book sale for a quarter, she brought it to him and insisted that it would make a wonderful film. "So I always say that we bought the rights to the book for 25 cents," the director now notes. The novella is set in Scotland, but Sayles changed the film's locale to the west coast of Ireland, where he felt more informed about the folklore. Roan Inish is the lyrical tale of Fiona (Jeni Courtney), a motherless 10-year-old who is sent to live with her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) on the west coast of Ireland. From their seaside cottage, Fiona can see Roan Inish, the island where she was born and where her family lived for generations. Her imagination is spurred by her relative's stories of her missing baby brother — who was swept out to sea as the family departed the island — and her heritage as a descendant of a "selkie," a creature that is half-seal and half woman. Fiona thus becomes intrigued by Roan Inish and the fate of her brother, who she believes is still alive and living with the seals. The atmosphere of supernatural elements so common to Celtic myth is beautifully realized in The Secret of Roan Inish, and Sayles imbues seagulls, seals, and the ocean itself with intelligence and magical properties. That this film touched so many people and reached such a wide audience during its initial release is testament to its strength — as with most of Sayles' pictures, the beauty and complexity of the story defy standard Hollywood marketing techniques. Seen through the eyes of Fiona, the film wanders back and forth between the everyday chores and rituals of the characters' daily life, the splendor of the landscape, and the vivid, magical tales spun by her grandfather and her "daft" cousin, Tadhg (John Lynch). Cinematographer Haskell Wexler provides some of his best work here, enveloping us in the fog, the dank beauty of the sea, and the rich, rocky green Irish coast. It is a place where magic is still possible, allowing the viewer to suspend enough to disbelief to fully identify with a 10-year-old heroine. A simple, traditional Irish score by Mason Daring adds another layer of atmosphere, creating a background of melancholy tinged with hope. Moreover, the performances are all impeccable, and young Jeni Courtney is a particular standout, providing a simple, honest performance free of any kid-actor pretensions (not a professional actress, Courtney was cast after her mother saw the casting director discussing the upcoming production on television). Columbia Tristar's DVD release of The Secret of Roan Inish offers a pristine transfer with excellent, rich audio in the original Dolby 2.0 Surround and either anamorphic widescreen (1:85:1) or standard full-screen format, and the disc also features theatrical trailers and a marvelous commentary track by director John Sayles. The commentary track is so good, in fact, that its worth watching the entire film a second time while listening to his detailed, scene-appropriate remarks on the technical aspects, the actors, and the background of the film, as well as his personal perceptions of the production. In fact, the single best reason to buy or rent Roan Inish on DVD is Sayles' track, which is as entertaining, informative, and as thoroughly engaging as the film itself.
—Dawn Taylor

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