John Sayles’ latest marks his entry into family-pic terrain, a crossing that draws pleasant but unexciting results. Short on the lush atmospherics its fanciful story cries for, “The Secret of Roan Inish” presents a marketing challenge — like another recent slice of Irish whimsy, “Into the West,” it may prove too talky and sophisticated for kids, too mild to lure adult customers.
The story, drawn from Brit author Rosalie K. Fry’s juve novel, has plucky 10 -year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney) shipped off by a hard-drinking, widowed dad to her grandparents’ coastal home in post-World War II County Donegal. There she and teen cousin Eamon are drawn into investigating their folkloric clan past — especially one ancestor’s union with a half-human, half-seal “Selkie” female.
Strange sights further pique Fiona’s curiosity. Her infant brother, Jamie, was presumed dead several years before when his cradle of ship’s-hull wood mysteriously drifted out from shoreline to sea. But Fiona glimpses the wild-child toddler scampering naked along the shore, always beyond reach. She finally convinces grandfolk (Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan) to row out to Roan Inish , the nearby island home they’ve abandoned, in hopes of solving the puzzle.
Film captures hardscrabble life of this remote fishing culture, but low-key direction and Haskell Wexler’s handsome yet somber lensing could use more leavening touches to help script’s fantastic side take flight.
Some scenes will particularly engage young viewers, like the haunting image of Jamie’s wave-propelled cradle, and various magical interventions by seagulls and seals. (Latter are seamlessly played by a combination of live beasts and animatronic creations.) Sequence in which the beautiful Selkie (Susan Lynch) sheds her sealskin is tasteful, but may be a bit much for some tots.
For all its attention to realistic detail, “Roan Inish” seems uneasy with the whimsy more crucial to emotional impact.
While individual sequences work well, Sayles doesn’t come up with the sort of transforming overall mood in which everyday events meld with otherworldly ones. This leaves the polished adult actors hitting a stereotypical note, with twinkles in each eye as they mouth literary-sounding lines like “Beautiful Christian girl she was! Summer stars ne’er shown on a better one!” or regale us with tales from the family’s book of tall tales (shown in generally persuasive flashbacks).
Juve performers fare better, with towheaded newcomer Courtney an attractive and convincingly resourceful wee heroine. Her appeal lends pic much of its value for family auds. Local accents, narrative complexity and a rather unvaried pace may tire customers under 8 or so, however.
The paucity of real narrative crescendos here will leave their elders just modestly entertained. While “Roan Inish” does beguile, it lacks the full-tilt enchantment that might have rendered this material classic family fare.
Tech work is smooth. Jaunty soundtrack of traditional Celtic sounds sets an appropriate mood.