Buried far, far beneath the empty hubris and soapy melodrama of the thin plot in Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture, there’s a fascinating film about women’s rights in 1920’s Ireland or, better said, the lack there of. Instead, the film pointedly goes in the direction of romance to little avail with performances that come off as distractedly phoned in, character relationships that are so easily forgettable that it’s easy for us to wonder halfway in just why we care about any of them all. For those who still hold a torch for Eric Bana there may be something worth salvaging in this tedious weepy but little else warrants any attention at all.
Set in the 1920’s in Ireland the film focuses (sort of) on Rose both as an elderly woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who’s been institutionalized for forty years now and is being forced to move from what she believes is her home and the young version of the character (Rooney Mara) who is accused of killing her infant child. As is to be expected, none is to be believed as seen and soon there are appearances from a corrupt priest (Theo James) and the dashing fighter pilot (Jack Reynor) who she falls head over heels for in the past and the aforementioned Bana as a Doctor in the present day who is assessing Rose’s condition and who has a secretive past of his own. Based on the secret “scriptures” Rose has scrawled out in her bible for the past four decades, they begin to piece together her memories and what exactly happened that fatal night when she was seemingly forever separated from her child.
Not even the performances can save this film and, frankly, it seems as if the actors knew this as James and Redgrave are the only two that seem to go further than what’s offered to them in the script. We haven’t seen Mara this vacant and soulless in a role in years and Raynor’s a vacuum of charisma, making for a central couple that sparks zero chemistry.
The greatest injustice is the treatment of Rose, particularly Mara’s version who is written to have little to no agency of her own, and even less characterization to justify any of her actions. We’re told from opposing characters that she’s fearless and passionate, that she’s alluring to men but we’ve never shown then in any of her transactions with supporting players. We’re expected to accept them as facts despite never given any solid proof that would lead us to our own assumptions. It’s lazy writing and it’s tedious filmmaking, all which add up to a film that is bereft of any soul and totally devoid of inspiring interest. Forgetful and tiresome, there’s little no know highlights in The Secret Scripture which despite some beautiful natural landscapes seemed better suited for a Lifetime original than a prestige drama type.
It’s this lack of agency that is the most upsetting aspect of the film because the lack of women’s agencies in that time period might have made for a powerful and insightful film experience. Rose’s being institutionalized is a blood boiling moment on paper but with little thematic push the emotions we feel are theoretical rather than physical, gut reactions. We realize what is happening is wrong but we have grown to care little about any of the characters involved by this point. A soggy script, lazy and repetitive direction and performances that leave much to be desired reveal a film that would always sound more intriguing on paper than in execution.
This is a reprint from the 2016 Toronto Film Festival.