Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mara, Redgrave shine in Sheridan's Secret Scripture

Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture.
This seems to be almost the only production still from the film -
only images from the making of are otherwise available. No trailer yet.
One of the things I love most is the first P & I screening of a world premiere. For those of us who don't/can't get to the European festivals, sometimes TIFF can feel like running down a track behind a speeding train. A film that has not yet been seen lends special excitement. I remember the crazy P & I line-ups several years ago for Dallas Buyers Club, and the volunteers desperately trying to prevent distinguished critics and other journalists from jumping the queue. Sometimes it is quieter, like Saturday morning's screening of Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture (though the room was full).

Adaptations are difficult endeavours. I once interviewed Anthony Minghella when he was at TIFF in 2000 to promote the Beckett Film Project, in which all nineteen of the Irish dramatist's plays were made into films. Minghella had adapted Play which I still use in the classroom. I reminded him of something he had said in a CBC radio interview for The English Patient several years before, which is that adaptations are a process of "compression and reinvention". Adapting Play, he told me, was not quite the same, because the dramatic text was fixed and couldn't be messed with. Nor would he have wanted to, passionate Beckett enthusiast that he was. (I still remember vividly his lit-up face as he talked about Beckett. I feel very lucky: my short time of doing press interviews during those early years of the millennium left me with only the most wonderful memories of conversations.)

I thought of Minghella as I watched Jim Sheridan's version of Sebastian Barry's novel about a passionate Irish woman who is wrongfully committed to an asylum and spends fifty years there. Like Minghella did on any project, Sheridan brings a tender and very compassionate lens, unafraid of the sentimentality that may emerge from simply watching a wronged life be slowly redeemed. The film is very much about the complexity of love -- and its presumed and broken boundaries. Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara share the role of Roseanne McNulty, whose vivid but non-promiscuous (especially by today's standards) sexuality in a small Irish town makes her a target of scandal, especially when her love interest is an Irish-born British RAF pilot. The story thus weaves a delicate web of political and personal realities, and Roseanne's desire to simply be herself, adds a vibrating third edge: in a pre-feminist era, her desire for solitude and her capacity for independent living are as out-of-synch with her times as the political luck of her love life.

Both Mara and Redgrave are wonderful in their younger/older versions, and there was a close-up moment on Redgrave when I could swear that she was trying to hold her face in a way that Mara does. Theo James plays a Catholic priest who is deeply divided by his love for Roseanne -- leading him to actions of both cruelty and compassion. What I particularly liked about this portrayal in the writing and in the performance is that the "God" piece was not ever invoked: his behaviour, as Roseanne rightly calls it, is from his needs as a man. She is not condemned by him verbally, bible verses are not hurled (as they so often are in movies) like bullets her way. Where his religious sensibilities do inform his behaviour is around what he jealously perceives as her 'nymphomania'. And it is this problem with his own sense of religious morality that both judges and redeems Roseanne as the movie plays out.

There were so many actor choices in the film that were beautiful. An early scene between Father Gaunt and Roseanne in a car is subtle and creates a beautiful understated tension that will endure throughout the film. The love between Roseanne and Michael (Jack Reynor), the fighter pilot, is palpable without being gooey; the narrative-necessary love scene choice might have been torrid but lands in a place of unvoyeuristic inevitability that is both passionate and not, because of the circumstances. Eric Bana and Susan Lynch are subtle and moving (despite being under-written and overly edited) as the psychiatrist called in to assess Roseanne in the contemporary story, and the loyal nurse Kaitlynn whom the older Roseanne completely relies on. Sheridan's sure hand is everywhere in the film, and it's a very loving hand, but particularly in the performances.

The narrative frame of the film comes from the annotated scripture of the film's title. Roseanne converts the Book of Job in her small bible into the "Book of Rose" and covers the pages with her own illustrations and memory, super-imposing her life onto the stories of the Judeo-Christian narrative. What a fantastic idea. The shots went by too quickly to see which chapters of what book correlated to which parts of the storytelling but that's something I would love to follow up on. Biblical stories should be interpreted within the context of our own lives - that is part of how they stay alive, and how we live into the promises of them. Roseanne's bible is visually sumptuous and rich with her own interpretive motifs, particularly the 'tree', never named in the text, but which might stand for both the biblical 'tree of life' and the tree that brings her lover to her from the sky.

Mara with director Jim Sheridan
If I had a critique, it might be in the editing (a credit that I cannot seem to find) which relies heavily on unnecessary reaction shots. And I am never a huge fan of extended voiceover narration. Later, in that great bastion of conversation, the women's room line-up, I met the Korean buyer of this film, and shared thoughts with her about it. Ultimately, neither of us cared. Everything else is in place in this emotionally colourful and effective piece of storytelling. I think Minghella would have liked it.