An elderly woman with an enigmatic past pines her days away in an asylum, until a doctor begins investigating her case and ultimately gives them both a second chance at life in The Secret Scripture (2016). It is a romantic tale filmed on location in Ireland and is one of those films audiences seemed to like but critics panned. Beautiful cinematography and emotional depth masks an otherwise ridiculous plot.
The Secret Scripture is based on a novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry, author of A Long Long Way (2005). It was released in Canada and the U.K. in 2016 but came to the U.S. in October of this year. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Jim Sheridan, who also directed My Left Foot (1989) and The Boxer (1997). Both Sebastian Barry and Jim Sheridan were born in Dublin and have focused their careers on highlighting the Irish experience.
The film centers on Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly woman in a mental institution who allegedly murdered her child. Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) comes to evaluate Rose to see if she is sane enough to live on her own, because the institution is being remodeled into a spa. Dr. Grene becomes fascinated with her life story after discovering a journal she’s kept, written on the pages of a Bible.
As a young woman, Rose (Rooney Mara) lives in Belfast with her sweetheart, Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor). He leaves to join the British air force during World War 2. She moves to the Irish countryside to escape the German bombing raids, only to run afoul of local conventions. After being exiled from her aunt’s cafe to an isolated cottage, Michael just so happens to be shot down in her backyard and she hides him from Irish partisans.
The local priest, Father Gaunt (Theo James), is smitten with Rose and becomes enraged when he sees her with Michael. He recommends she be confined in the local mental hospital. Michael and Rose marry, but no one believes her because he fled the Irish partisans and was later killed. I guess the church where they got married didn’t keep a registry.
After breaking out of the asylum, she swims away only to be washed ashore, where she gives birth and it’s implied she smashes her newborn with a rock. In a twist ending, however, this recollection of events is revealed to be inaccurate and in fact Dr. Grene is Rose’s long-lost son, who was taken shortly after birth. Gaunt, now an Archbishop, was the man who requested Grene go to the asylum.
Eric Bana, who played Hector in Troy (2004) and Nero in Star Trek (2009), is a bright spot in the film. His interaction with veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave saves it from being truly unbearable. Together, they add a touch of humanity in sea of melancholy, sullen, and otherwise cold and reptilian characters.
It’s a tearjerker for sure, but The Secret Scripture is one step away from a Lifetime Original Movie. It’s one of those silly romantic tales filled with unlikely coincidences, picturesque scenery, and a taciturn heroine who for some reason drives every man she meets wild. I’m not sure if the movie is deliberately anti-Catholic, but it plays on old stereotypes of the Church silencing rebellious women in mental hospitals and covering up scandal. Definitely meant for the wine and chocolate crowd.