“My name is Rose McNulty. I didn’t kill my child.”
These powerful opening lines, delivered over intercut shots of a dishevelled Rooney Mara and a disoriented Vanessa Redgrave backed by Brian Byrne’s haunting celtic soundtrack, suggest that Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture will be an emotionally rich, moving story. Unfortunately, despite a top-notch cast, talented director, and gorgeous landscapes, the film never delivers on its initial potential.
It’s a story of an innocent woman whose life is crushed by pointless cruelty and jealousy, jumping between 1930s Ireland and a mental hospital in the 1980s, and in this regard Vanessa Redgrave makes the film work. As the older Rose McNulty the acting veteran’s face displays a lifetime of pain and confusion, making the most minor details moving and affecting. Rooney Mara continues her streak of excellent performances as the younger Rose in flashbacks, keeping her emotions closely guarded for much of the first half of the film before unleashing both her character’s frustration and passion as the story picks up towards the end. Eric Bana acts as the comfortably sympathetic audience substitute as Dr William Greene, the psychiatrist reassessing Rose’s case before the hospital closes down, and Theo James makes for an impressively intimidating figure as the local priest who becomes an increasingly imposing presence on young Rose’s life.
This is one of those films that should’ve worked, with accomplished director Jim Sheridan using the Irish coast to emphasise the quiet romance and loneliness of the story, but as is often the case even good directing can’t save a bad script. Rose is a particularly passive character for much of the first half of the story, so I had little reason to be connected to her beyond Mara’s own natural screen presence, and the main romance between her character and her supposed ‘one-true-love’ Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor) felt rushed and unexplored. We see more of Rose missing Michael or thinking about her love for him than we do of them actually in love. I could have overlooked these flaws as the film moves in a more tragic direction in the third act, with harrowing scenes of Mara being broken down and effectively ambiguous flashbacks that raise questions as to whether or not the older Rose is remembering the past correctly, if not for an absolutely atrocious ending that goes completely against the entire tone of the rest of the story. Admittedly I haven’t read Sebastian Barry’s novel that served as the influence for the film, so I can’t say whether this ending was a part of it from the beginning or an invention of Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson when they were writing the screenplay, but when it became clear what direction the climax was moving in I had to resist the urge to audibly groan. It’s an insulting, unnecessary twist to a story that didn’t need one, and what’s worse is how Sheridan tries to play it as an uplifting redemptive moment when even the slightest thought to it makes it seems tragic and cruel for more than one character.
Every time The Secret Scripture seems as though it has an affective, emotional story to tell it stumbles and trips over itself, and the final embarrassing face-plant serves only to rob the moments that worked of any lasting impact.
2 and a half stars.