Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) has been living in a mental institution for 50 years. She tells her story to a sympathetic doctor (Eric Bana), recounting her past as a young woman (Rooney Mara) in wartime Ireland, and the circumstances which led to her committal.
A film in which Vanessa Redgrave reflects on a life of regret invites obvious comparison to Atonement. More surprisingly, there’s also a brief and inadvertent whiff of Titanic (actual dialogue, spoken to an elderly woman just before a flashback: “I want to hear your story, Rose”). But ultimately, it has most in a common with The Notebook. The Secret Scripture is a weepie, one of historical love and loss, and though the intention is to make you cry, you’re more likely to find yourself frowning.
Though the intention is to make you cry, you’re more likely to find yourself frowning.
The early present-day scenes are the film’s best, as Rose (Redgrave) contemplates being “condemned to a living death” at a mental hospital. She tells the story of how she came to be there to Dr Grene (Bana) using her “secret scripture”, an old Bible she’s used as a journal. Then we flashback to 1940s rural Ireland (you can almost hear the harpist plucking the scale), where Rooney Mara takes the reins as Rose, a headstrong young woman unafraid to make eye contact with men in a conservative town where such behaviour is thought scandalous. Caught in a love quadrilateral between a hunky Catholic priest (Theo James), a Protestant World War II pilot (Jack Reynor) and a republican suitor (Aidan Turner), Rose finds herself exiled from her community, slandered as a nymphomaniac and accused of infanticide.
Like many prestige period pics of this kind, The Secret Scripture attempts to blend the personal and the political, setting a tragic romance against the backdrop of societal upheaval. The Troubles is certainly fertile dramatic ground, and director Jim Sheridan — back on home turf having worked in America since 2002’s In America — has grappled with Irish political history before with In the Name Of The Father. But here he seems uninterested in exploring the divisions in Irish society, devoting more screentime to stolen glances and repressed emotions. “I’m not an English Rose,” insists Rose, a Protestant, in one scene. “I’m Irish through and through.” That’s all we get, really. IRA men skulk moodily on the sidelines, but they are pitched as two-dimensional baddies, the roots or reasons behind the sectarian conflict never mentioned.
Too much of Sebastian Barry’s source novel gets squandered in the transfer. Losing Barry’s lyrical prose is an unfortunate but inevitable by-product; less forgivable is the narrative logic merrily chucked out of the window by a clumsy script. Romances seem unconvincing or contrived. Character motivations seem baffling and unearned. Coincidences pile upon coincidences.
In an Ireland populated by British, American and Australian actors, there are some fine performances and largely serviceable accents from a starry and under-nurtured cast. The two Roses — Redgrave and Mara — shine brightest, contributing two equally powerful and vulnerable performances. Credit must also go to DP Mikhail Krichman, whose elegant photography makes the most of Ireland’s beauty. But all the talent available can’t excuse the sort of melodramatic plot machinations that an EastEnders scriptwriter might baulk at. Events reach a nadir in the perturbing final reveal, with a twist more head-slappable than the original novel ever managed. Frankly, it insults the audience, and retroactively ruins any possible goodwill generated from the previous two hours. Save your fiercest frowns for the final five minutes.
A maudlin adaptation hampered by low energy and lapses of logic, The Secret Scripture does a disservice to the book it is based on, and the Irish history it plunders.