The Secret Scripture (2017)
It’s easy to get absorbed in a story without recognising the bigger picture that frames the narrative. To describe The Secret Scripture (2017) as a woman’s diary of life in a mental hospital masks the darker narrative of horror perpetrated by the Catholic Church. Based on a 2008 novel of the same name, the film is part of the recent wave of disclosures about appalling misdeeds committed in the name of holiness across various parts of the world.
Set in Ireland from the early 1930s, the story traces the life of Roseanne McNulty who was falsely incarcerated in an Irish mental hospital owned by the Catholic Church. After more than 40 years as a patient, Rose must be discharged or moved elsewhere when the hospital closes. New psychiatrist William Grene (Eric Bana) discovers that she is mentally sharp and has meticulously recorded her life story across the pages of an old bible. In a complex series of flashbacks the elderly Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) recounts how, as a feisty young woman (played by Rooney Mara), she had fallen in love with Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor) believed by locals to be a British sympathiser. The new Father Gaunt (Theo James) takes more than a pastoral interest in Rose and tries to stop the affair. When Rose becomes pregnant and Michael is embroiled in the Irish Troubles, she is hunted down by local vigilantes for harbouring the suspected sympathiser. Enraged by the affair, Father Gaunt certifies her to be suffering from nymphomania and she is subjected to electric shock treatment and other abuses over four decades.
Great filming locations and stellar acting performances by Redgrave and Mara do little to save this film from its complicated and fractured web of episodic flashbacks. The constant shifts of time, place, and people is at the cost of narrative coherence and the contrived finale defies beiief. The narrow expressive repertoire of Eric Bana casts a pall of indifference over Rose’s existence as if she were a specimen in a hospital test tube. When it is revealed she is much more than that, Bana strains to emote with warmth or empathy and leaves you wondering why he was cast in that role. The transitions between the younger and older Rose are increasingly disjointed as the entire ensemble drifts towards its soap-operatic conclusion.
Uncertain direction and messy narrative means it is easy to lose sight of the larger story of injustice suffered by people like Rose at the hands of the Catholic Church. The moral perversion of Father Gaunt and the Church’s obsession to punish victims is left unexamined. Despite excellent filming and a well-crafted atmosphere of claustrophobic confinement, this film struggles to rise above a mediocre melodrama.
Director: Jim Sheridan
Stars: Rooney Mara, Vanessa Redgrave, Eric Bana, Theo James, Jack Raynor