Oscar nominated director Jim Sheridan is back with The Secret Scripture, a love story based on the award-winning novel by Sebastian Barry. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the Dublin-born director about the film, the actors and this unforgettable tale of thwarted love.
Ireland achieved its independence in the 1920s, but the truth is that Irish women are still awaiting theirs. In The Secret Scripture, a new film based on the award-winning book by Sebastian Barry which opens on Friday, October 13, director Jim Sheridan, 68, reminds us just how dangerous Irish society could be for strong willed, self-reliant women after Independence.
But here's a fact that is sometimes missed: it was no country for young men either. When Sheridan and his friend and fellow director Neil Jordan arrived on the Irish arts scene at the start of the 1970s, their lives and careers began to mirror the glacial changes that were happening in the country.
“I often tell a story about my dad putting up an ariel on the roof trying to get the BBC,” Sheridan tells the Irish Voice.
“He pointed it east, but he couldn't get a signal. Later he found out it was because the church building was physically blocking it. The signal was hitting the spire and the building and breaking up and reforming up the road in 89 Saville Place. So we were right in the shadow of the church.”
In more ways than one. In The Secret Scripture, Irish American actress Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave both star as Roseanne McNulty young and old; first as a strikingly beautiful young woman in the 1940s who captivates every young man in her Sligo town, then as a white haired, long forgotten resident of a closing down Co. Roscommon mental hospital closer to our own time.
What happens to Roseanne in between her youth and old age paints an unforgettable picture of 20th century Irish society, and what male pride and vanity can do to women, harming themselves in the process.
Using Barry's novel as a departure point rather than a source text, Sheridan has pursued his own artistic signals, so the film opens out from the original material. Sheridan's Roseanne is impressively self-possessed and self-assured, two qualities that see her cattily talked about in the small Sligo town in which she lives and works.
Mara's delicate beauty allows us to see why Roseanne captivates the local men, but it also explains the growing hostility and jealousy that many in the town direct toward her. Who does she think she is in her movie star coat and hat? Look at the cut of her.
In particular, Roseanne captivates the evocatively named Father Gaunt, the emotionally unstable parish priest played by the wildly handsome Theo James. Roseanne is a provocative reminder to Gaunt of all he has foresworn in the service of the church. She hasn't asked for his romantic attention, and she soon becomes the tragic victim of it.
When you create a social and religious system that elevates some and demotes others, the way Ireland did so ruthlessly after Independence, you can easily become a victim of that system yourself. In Sheridan's tale, who you are in this paranoid society dictates what can happen to you. Just say the wrong word at the wrong time to the wrong person and you can literally be disappeared, carried off to your doom, as Roseanne is.
“Roseanne's a Protestant women in a Catholic society and I wanted to do a bit of redress on that,” Sheridan explains. “She's an individual in that town, a sort of outsider, as opposed to being part of the clan or the tribe, you know?”
A little perspective helps. Sheridan's mother ran a lodging house when he was growing up in Dublin and the kids he met from England then always had a different attitude to sex, he recalls. “It was free of all the connotations, it was cleaner.”
In The Secret Scripture, how Catholics and Protestants grapple with the community and the individual, how they respond to sexuality, a women's in particular, is the engine of the film.
“The film's about an outsider, it's set on the border. I worked in Clones with Barry McGuigan so I knew a lot about that border town,” Sheridan says.
In Barry's book the priest is an old 60-something who just sees Roseanne out with one guy once, Sheridan adds. “I thought I can't work with that, so I made him young, I made him handsome and I made him question himself. The weird thing is he's probably the most vulnerable person in the film. He's rattled by Roseanne,” Sheridan says.
That encounter between Roseanne and Gaunt on the beach is probably the best scene in the movie, Sheridan believes.
“Only because at the time you don't know that he's priest. There's something about a secret or a hidden fact that charges it in a way that you couldn't charge it if it was just two people. It really interested me,” he says.
“I was half interested in making the whole movie about him and her but of course I couldn't do that. It's the most interesting relationship.
“In the film Rooney finds a bit of madness in her character. She is slightly odd in the way that people often are in a place where they can never be themselves. She's always at odds with her society too, very quiet, very put upon.
“It's the first time I've ever had a woman as a main character, after My Left Foot. Women are much more multitasking. It's different from male lead actors. They are able to do two or three things all at once. So it was a very different mood on set. It was like telepathy with Rooney Mara.”
Under its realist surface The Secret Scripture feels a bit like a late Shakespearian play. There is a wronged woman, a deeply unstable man, and the tragedy that erupts between them because that man cannot control his own nature. It's The Winter's Tale, magical realism meets the Magdalene laundries.
“I think that's true, it's very much like a fable,” says Sheridan. “The thing I do in movies is very much keep it real. So it may be a bit dislocating for people when they have this fable element, it doesn’t seem to quite fit. It's uneasy, you know?”
Jack Reynor wins praise for his performance. “They were the first scenes and I set it in a cottage. He was very easy to work with. Aidan Turner was also a charmer. Rooney loved him because he's very funny,” Sheridan says.
The IRA subplot was edited down in the final cut, but its inclusion brings up some issues for the director.
“I have very republican tendencies myself but I think we have to come to terms with the fact that every time England has a difficulty it's not exactly Ireland's opportunity. I was just trying to show that these guys were out of their depth a little bit. I think the border campaign in the Second World War was an insanity.”
Critical response to the new film, Sheridan's first set in Ireland since The Boxer, has been mixed, with some swept up by its unabashed romanticism and others baffled by it's quietly magical realist plot structure.
What the film does, and does very well, is explore how much a man is willing sacrifice to preserve a deceitful image of himself. That lesson is still being learned in the country where of The Secret Scripture is set, even by its film critics.