It doesn’t take too long for Jim Sheridan’s period romance “The Secret Scripture” to contort itself into a befuddlingly bungled mess. But at the outset, it seems to have everything going for it. It boasts an illustrious cast in Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, and Eric Bana, and it has a six-time Oscar nominee at the helm. Sebastian Barry’s 2008 source novel was well-received and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the film’s handsome production design and cinematography give it the sort of prestige sheen best described as Late-Century Miramax.
And yet the resulting film doesn’t just fail to properly combine its modes of wartime romance, psychological intrigue, and Catholic guilt-mongering, it often fails to make sense on the most essential level. A classic case of a literary adaptation capturing the high-gloss trappings of its source without getting a handle on its story or themes, “The Secret Scripture” is like a nicely decorated Craftsman home built on a foundation of Jell-O, with a toilet where the kitchen sink should be. It looks nice on first glance, but spend any time there, and things start to get messy.
Inelegantly approximating the novel’s parallel-narrative structure while dispensing with most of its political subtext and fundamentally altering much of its plot, the film first introduces us to the elderly Rose McNulty (Redgrave) more than four decades into her imprisonment in a rural Irish insane asylum. Rose has been here since the waning days of World War II, when she was accused of murdering her newborn son. She still professes her innocence in moments of passing lucidity — in fact, she’s convinced her son is still alive — and she has committed her illustrated memories to the margins of a Bible, in which she’s graffitied the Book of Job into the Book of Rose.
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Enter fortysomething psychologist Dr. Stephen Grene (Bana), who’s been assigned to hastily examine Rose before she can be transferred to a new facility. But Rose refuses to leave the asylum, believing her son will someday come looking for her there, and Stephen arranges to speak with her over a few days and read her diary entries, presented in the form of 1940s flashbacks, with Mara playing the twentysomething Rose.
From here, we find ourselves thrust into a Patrick Kavanagh-esque slice of small town Irish life, as this quietly self-possessed, parentless young woman chafes against the stringent mores of her County Sligo village. Without her doing much to entice suitors — Mara renders the character a picture of frosty passivity — pushy, interested men start to crowd around Rose, who works as a waitress in her aunt’s cafe. (In keeping with the film’s aversion to straightforward storytelling, her aunt is identified as her “mother’s sister.”)
The crowd of obsessed fellows includes a chummy working class lad named Jack (Aidan Turner); a handsome, insinuating stranger later revealed to be the town priest, Father Gaunt (Theo James, all solemn smolder); Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor), a charming shopkeeper who catches Rose’s fancy right before running off to join the RAF; and a sinister lurker named Tailor (Tom Vaughan-Lawler) who warns Rose against fraternizing with Michael, for reasons neither she nor we are allowed to fully understand.
Before long, Father Gaunt has become so obsessed with Rose that he’s stalking her around town, and villagers start to gossip. After she inadvertently sparks a fist fight between Father Gaunt and Jack at a dance, Rose is exiled to her family’s country cottage. Incredibly, Michael’s plane is shot down and crashes a few hundred feet away. Rose rescues him from the rubble and hides him in her home, while a band of angry villagers led by Tailor try to find him to kill him.
Confusion about why they want to kill Michael, and exactly how Rose managed to intuit that he might be in danger, makes this the first of several scenes where vital contextual information seems to have been lost somewhere. All the same, Rose and Michael fall in love during his convalescence, with Michael telling elliptical stories of the war and Rose largely watching him from bed, and they hastily get married before Michael heads off for parts unknown. He’s spotted at the house by Father Gaunt, however, who conspires to lock the now-pregnant Rose in a Magdalene asylum due to her “nymphomania.”
At this point, it becomes increasingly difficult to suss out exactly what is happening, or if in fact it is happening at all, and the sense of narrative unreliability does not appear entirely intentional. At times, the sheer rush of unlikely events — long-lost loves literally falling out of the sky within sight of our heroine’s bedroom, characters making abrupt, consequential decisions for no comprehensible reason — suggests the film will take a “Shutter Island”-style turn. It does have a twist ending, though it’s one that many viewers will immediately suspect during the first reel, only to dismiss as too obvious.
Despite the absence of several important details and a general tonal uneasiness — reaching peak strangeness with a scene where the previously sedate Dr. Grene randomly performs a comic reenactment of his father’s death — the film never seems to have been the victim of heavy cuts or late edits. Indeed, the action flows comprehensibly from scene-to-scene, rumbling along at a steady, staid pace with well-chosen locations and moody, evocative photography from Mikhail Krichman. (The end-credits Kelly Clarkson song isn’t even quite as out of place as it might sound.) It’s simply that the story makes little sense and the characters have no discernible motivations or detectable inner lives.
This handicap aside, Redgrave brings a touch of class to each of her scenes, even when her character appears to be deep in the grip of dementia, and Bana maintains an authoritative air even when the script and his irregular Irish accent conspire to let him down. Mara has a much steeper task: The film is at its best when it plays things simply, and the actress elicits empathy as an undeserving target of crushing small-town patriarchy. But as the film spirals off in entirely too many directions, there’s too little of the character to hold onto, and eventually she finds herself flailing for footing as she’s gaslit by everyone around her. Struggling to follow along, we in the audience know exactly how she feels.