There are several ways in which to celebrate the Irish today. I could talk about good Irish Beer and Irish Whiskey…or Irish Cream with which my friend Kevin keeps me stocked. I could mention a few Irish authors I’ve come to enjoy. I thought of cheating and resurrecting a few Response Papers from my time at University, but then I would have had to edit them. I decided to pick a film, and one for the whole family at that! Better, I will make this post spoiler-free!
The animated story of the boy behind the famed Book of Kells.
Director and Writer Tomm Moore’s 2009 animated film The Secret of Kells is a visual masterpiece. I know pretty much every film claims this, but in this film’s case it is actually true. The Secret of Kells is ecstatic.
There are several things to appreciate about The Secret of Kells besides the gorgeous drawings; the lines, the colors, the animation of said lines and colors…
—–The voice talents are appropriately expressive. They are cast well for the characterization seen both in the drawing and the dialogue. Evan McGuire as the protagonist Brendan, is breathless with wonderment and energetic with youth, as is his rendering—ever moving and vibrant, wide-eyed and leaning onto the verge of everything. Brendan Gleeson as Abbott Cellach, Brendan’s Uncle and Protector is as crisp as the lines with which he is drawn, as controlled and contained as his towering and compact characterization (drawn and acted).
—–Much like Susie Templeton’s Peter & the Wolf (2006), a wall has been built between the wild and civilization. In The Secret of Kells, the wall would also separate the old beliefs and the new, life and death, male and female, and the mythical and the real. Lore lives outside the walls, and little by little it is let in.
Aidan and his Book of Iona take on mythical proportion, relayed in stories by the abbey’s illuminators to Brendan. Then Aidan shows up with his book, unfinished, but entrancing nonetheless. He is real. Aidan has fled the Northmen as they were destroying his village on Iona. The Northmen are violently sketched, primitive sweeps of some roughened instrument; they are animated shadow, faceless and all the more terrifying for it. Their existence takes on greater proportions, all that can be seen is their threat, and that is enough. And then there is Aisling, a fairy, a shape-shifter, and of the forest; fluid and feminine, white and not unthreatening, yet depicted as a child and companion to Brendan.
Interestingly, the wall that separates the wild and the civilization visually in the film is not built to keep the wild from the inhabitants of the abbey. It is built to keep the Northmen out. They are the true threat. Inks are made from natural sources, Brendan meets Aisling while sneaking out and fetching gall nuts. The blue-prints and the illuminated texts are unarguably inspired by nature. The tool, the lens the master illuminator Aidan uses and needs is from a mythical source, ancient and hidden amidst the forest. The places where old religions were practiced and celebrated are ruins, a foreshadowing of the abbey’s own ruination?
If there are any criticisms, paralleling the Northmen with Christianity, it is terribly subtle. Any overt attempt is extinguished with the cooperation Aisling lends to Brendan. Aisling comes from before. She is old enough to remember the beast Brendan must face to retrieve the crystal lens; old enough to be truly afraid of its capability, “It took my mother. It takes everything. You’ll die.” I suppose the difference we are to see between what Brendan/Aidan and the book brings to Aisling’s world is that they are about bringing light, where the others were/are about darkness.
“I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.”~Aisling.
The Book of Kells nee Iona becomes greater than all of them. (As if it were ever meant to be and in turn ever will be).
Brendan is ever a small figure amidst the large and brilliant-hued landscapes, and even in the tower with the drawings, they would prove the more dominant fixture in dark tones. He is rendered small and vulnerable to the events about him, real or imagined.
Aisling: I thought you knew how to climb trees.
Brendan: I do. Smaller ones.
Aisling: [laughs] Yeah. Like *bushes*.
By film’s end, this changes. He has the blessing of Aisling (and all she represents). He’s grown, physically. And he has the Book. He has overcome the ancient terrors, the wildness, and the ever present dangers (the Northmen). But then, his destiny is tied up in the Book, and its secrets. The struggle only adds to its beauty, value, and mythic proportion.
—–There is humor, a lightheartedness amidst the oppression of fear.
Brendan: You can’t find out everything from books, you know.
Aidan: I think I read that once.
While Aidan is escaping certain death, Brendan is trying to chase down a goose for its feather in a warm and idyllic setting. The whimsical aspect of magic would weigh in against the darker. And as the film works to maintain balance, it ever remains in the fantastical. The layers of Lore deliciously animated and lifted from the page. Like the Book, the film would instill a sense of awe, create a transcendent experience.
This brings me to what I was thinking about earlier this morning, but finding A.O. Scott’s review, I was relieved to find that (as per usual) he states it more coherently:
“Using the vivid colors and delicate lineations of the Book of Kells for inspiration, [Tomm Moore] establishes a surprising and completely persuasive link between the ancient art of manuscript illumination and the modern practice of animation. Like the crystal lens that is a crucial element of Aidan’s craft — an enchanted eye that refracts and renews his, and then Brendan’s, perception — “The Secret of Kells” discloses strange new vistas that nonetheless seem to have existed since ancient times.”
Animated film is beautiful venue in which to relay the magical quality of illuminated manuscript. The moments in which the Book’s illuminations come alive in the film are true to experience. This marvel transfers elegant to our own sense of awe at how Tomm Moore brings the incredible drawings made for the film to life. Scott again,
“The Secret of Kells” […] concerns the Book of Kells, a medieval illuminated manuscript that ranks among the most important artifacts of Irish civilization. And it is only fitting that a movie concerned with the power and beauty of drawing — the almost sacred magic of color and line — should be so gorgeously and intricately drawn.
The opportunity to bask in the sheer visual beauty of this film is enough of a reason to watch The Secret of Kells.
I will finally leave it at that.
Directed byTomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Produced by Paul Young, Didier Brunner, Vivian Van Fleteren
Written by Fabrice Ziolkowski (screenplay), Tomm Moore (story)
Starring (voice talents): Brendan Gleeson (Cellach), Evan McGuire (Brendan),
Christen Mooney (Aishling), Mick Lally (Aidan)
Music by Bruno Coulais, Kíla
Running time 75 minutes.
A.O. Scott’s NY Times Review, “Outside the Abbey’s Fortified Walls, a World of Fairy Girls and Beasts.”
Note: Netflix should still have this Streaming as of today’s date.