Jim Sheridan’s handsome yet flimsy melodrama The Secret Scripture (**, 12A, 108 minutes) turns out to be a tale of two actresses, one great, one getting there, neither quite given the script they deserve. Stumbling dishevelled through a decommissioned asylum in Sligo in the early 90s, and thereby delaying plans to convert her long-term residence into a trendy health spa, we’re greeted by no less a figure than Vanessa Redgrave. Making waves in wartime flashbacks, meanwhile, we meet Rooney Mara, fearless and free-spirited, possessed of what chanced-upon court papers describe as “a tempting beauty”, and thus perhaps inevitably doomed to be wronged by the men of her era.
It will come as scant surprise – even less if you’ve read Sebastian Barry’s novel – to discover the two are the same woman, one Rose Clear, as observed at different moments in her life. As doctor Eric Bana settles down to decipher the pictograms and cryptic commentary Rose the Elder has sketched into the margins of her Bible over the years, we get to find out why Rose the Younger was placed under lock and key. Here’s where Mara takes over, as fetching in period garb as she was in 2015’s Carol, turning diverse heads: those of a brooding priest (Theo James), a working lad (Aidan Turner, barely present) and – most excitingly – a fighter pilot (Jack Reynor) she rescues after he’s shot down in the woods.
If this sounds an unusually florid tale for the director of 1993’s In the Name of the Father to be telling, you wouldn’t be wrong. Barry’s scenario, granted, offers its own frowning commentary on organised religion; Sheridan keeps in the priests separating over-affectionate couples at the village dance with a ruler (“Make room for the Holy Spirit”) and Rose overwriting the Book of Job (not a bad choice) once the Church – or at least one of its representatives – betrays her. Yet nobody’s pushing unduly hard: Young Rose’s moderately inconveniencing spell in a Magdalene laundry suggests Sheridan’s ambition lay not in making some scabrous anti-clerical attack, rather gentle matinee fodder.
In fairness, it’s attentively composed. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman fashions an attractive contrast between this Ireland’s sundappled landscapes and suffocating interiors, while the ensemble brims with welcome faces (Adrian Dunbar, Susan Lynch, Pauline “Mrs. Doyle” McLynn, for Barry’s strain of small-town Catholicism surely fed Father Ted, too). It’s a sign of Sheridan’s standing that, even after a decade in the career doldrums, this much talent still itched to work with him; the pity is that there’s only so much depth this material can provide. Casting light on these pages reveals them as porous indeed: a fantasy of sorts – gorgeous young woman, two-dimensional hunks – wrapped altogether neatly in a hidebound literary device.
The Secret Scripture opens in selected cinemas from today.