Every Irish person knows about the Book of Kells, the ninth century manuscript that’s a priceless triumph of the illustrator’s art, but very few Irish people ever bother to line up alongside the tourist hordes to actually take a look at it in any kind of detail themselves.
Like the Blarney Stone or the Giant’s Causeway, most of us are happy enough just to know it’s there. It’s one of the most important artifacts of Irish civilization after all; it’s a part of what makes the Irish who we are.
But there’s no call to go out of your way to actually see the thing, right?
Well, wrong. In The Secret of Kells, the remarkable Oscar nominated Irish animated film starring Brendan Gleeson and Mick Lally (best known as Miley from the Irish soap Glenroe) the Book of Kells provides the inspiration for the storyline, but it does much more than that. It also shapes the look and feel of the finished film, which is, it must be said, utterly beautiful.
In the film young Brendan, a monk in training, lives in a battered outpost under siege from invading foreign barbarians, but adventure suddenly beckons when a celebrated master illuminator arrives, carrying an ancient but unfinished book that Brendan will one day help to complete.
Even if you’ve already seen a trailer for The Secret of Kells, nothing will prepare you for the jaw-dropping marvel that director Tomm Moore has created. Japanese film critics have for decades revered one of their own named Hayao Miyazaki, a maverick director whose animated films have addressed Japanese life and culture.
If the Irish have any sense they’ll see the clear parallels between Miyazaki’s work and Moore’s and they’ll take every measure to ensure his films are funded, promoted and screened worldwide. The reason is that Moore has created a uniquely Irish visual vocabulary, and he’s married that to equally strong storytelling skills.
“It’s mad, we never expected it to go this far,” Moore tells the Irish Voice. “We started animating the film in October 2005 and we finished up in August 2008. We only released the film in Ireland last year. We really didn’t expect to be nominated for an Oscar this year.”
Moore’s surprise is a reminder that in Ireland, even in 2010, you still only really hit the big time when other cultures take notice. But Gleeson, who plays Abbot Cellach, needed no convincing that Moore’s film was the real thing.
“A lot of times people will come up to you and start chatting and it’ll turn out they won’t have the funding for it,” Gleeson tells the Irish Voice (he was in New York to attend the opening of Green Zone, the new Iraq war film in which he stars with Matt Damon).
“But Paul Young, producer of The Secret of Kells, had already done the work. He’s from Boyle in Co. Roscommon, and I have a lot of friends down there and what was impressive was that he had made all the running already. He wasn’t looking to me to get the film made or anything like that.”
In The Secret of Kells Moore works as a hand drawn, two-dimensional animator, not a computer animator. That means it takes vastly more time to produce one of his films.
It also makes him deeply unfashionable. In fact, in most animators circles, there’s a general consensus that hand drawn animation is dead.
“But hand drawn animation is so strong in Celtic art that we decided we wanted to keep it going, even though we sometimes did use the computer. We were one of the only two hand drawn films in the nominee list,” Moore says.
Gleeson was also really happy to be part of the non-computer generated project. “I just thought the quality of the scenes they showed me was phenomenal. They were just very up and at it kinds of guys themselves and I was just very interested in the material anyway,” he says.
“But not only have they taken the Book of Kells as inspiration, they’ve made a very modern film out of it. They haven’t just rested on their laurels and said at least all the art work’s done. I just think they’re really talented.”
In the film Brendan the young monk (played by 12-year-old Evan McGuire) is learning to be an artist in difficult circumstances, which mirrored the reality of the real life Irish filmmakers themselves.
“He was struggling to create art and so were we,” says Moore with a laugh.
What’s strikingly different about The Secret of Kells is its assumption that young kids can handle movies that challenge them with real life and death themes.
“It’s really sad what has happened to animation over the last 20 years,” says Moore. “When you look at a movie like Disney’s Bambi, which is at times really heavy and quite dark in terms of what happens in it, you can see that there’s been a general dumbing down of the medium these days. Farting and belching animals was a big problem in the last few years.”
Neither Gleeson nor Lally had much time to worry about the finished result of their efforts, because their part in the film was over almost as soon as it had begun.
“To be honest with you the acting part of the film wasn’t a big thing. Mick and myself were only in for a day. It was one of those things where we were saying, is that it? Can we not go again?,” says Gleeson.
“The actual work on it felt for us quite limited and, of course, they then went off for two years into the real thrust of it -- the animation of it. In terms of the actual work it was a minor contribution, but I have to say I do feel slightly proprietorial because I was there from the beginning and I just feel really proud of them.”
It amazed Gleeson that a film as good The Secret of Kells could go under the radar as long as it did. But it didn’t surprise him that the Academy would pick up on it for the Oscars.
Better yet, it’s an Irish made and produced film, which makes its Oscar nomination all the more impressive. The very fact that they’ve been nominated is a major achievement.
But Gleeson is known for throwing himself wholeheartedly into every project he starts. There was his unforgettable turn in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto for a start.
“Ah well, now when you get the chance to be a Womble you’ve got to go for it,” he says.
And he channeled every scarifying Irish teacher you’ve ever seen for his role as Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films. “It brought you back some little horrors from your childhood maybe?” he says laughing. “Take your bags and baggage and get out there boys,” he barks, enjoying his ability to play the role in an instant.
Then there’s the small matter of his decision to film Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds. “I’ve spent the last five or six years adapting the book. Getting it away from the book without losing the anarchy of it is hard,” says Gleeson.
“t has to be filmic. And you don’t want to tame the beast where it’s uninteresting. It’s been a great artistic quest, but its not the best time to be making an off-center artistic film. Hopefully it will happen this year, we have the bit between our teeth and we’re going for the autumn.
“We have a lot of people who want to get behind it (Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers for a start). All things being equal we’ll start shooting in the autumn in Ireland.”
The Secret of Kells is now playing at the City Cinemas Village, 181-189 Second Avenue, New York.
USS Michael Murphy, named after Irish American Navy SEAL hero, heading toward Korea