Film : The magic of books
"The Secret of Kells" may have lost to "Up" in this year's competition for the animated feature Oscar, but this not-to-be-missed Irish film is far more beautiful and exotic. Vineyarders have the chance to see it at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Friday, April 2 in a screening sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.
Mostly hand drawn by a team of animators from Ireland, Belgium, and France, "The Secret of Kells" explodes with color, vivid drawing, and handsome design. The film follows the adventures of a boy novice named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) who overcomes his fears and discovers his artistic talent in a primitive world of impending violence.
Director Tomm Moore, who also wrote the story and some of the music, draws inspiration from the legendary ninth century illuminated manuscript, "The Book of Kells." This Irish national treasure takes the medieval art of illumination to its greatest heights, illustrating the four gospels of the New Testament with decorative initials, border designs, and miniature pictures of humans (including the oldest extant one of the Virgin Mary), animals, and mythical creatures.
Although "The Secret of Kells" is set in an abbey, it is less about religion than the power of books and artistic expression. Brendan's Uncle Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) heads the Abbey of Kells, and although once an illuminator himself, he has become obsessed with building a wall that will protect the monastery and surrounding town from the hordes of Vikings who threaten to overrun it.
When a Scottish scribe named Aidan (voiced by Mick Lally) takes refuge at Kells, bringing with him an uncompleted manuscript, he enlists Brendan to help him finish it. But Brendan's uncle insists the boy's priority must be to help fortify the monastery.
The abbot forbids Brendan to enter the surrounding forest and hunt for the inkberries that Brother Aidan needs to work on the manuscript. The temptation is too great for Brendan, though.
Attracted and frightened by the magical and scary creatures that inhabit the woods, Brendan finds an ally in Aisling (voiced by Christen Mooney), a fairy creature who guides him to the spot where he can find the inkberries. Aidan's cat comes along as aide de camp.
Plagued by failing eyesight, Aidan relies increasingly on Brendan, to the consternation of Uncle Cellach, who forbids the boy to enter the scriptorium where Aidan works on the manuscript. Once again Brendan decides to defy his uncle and enter the forest.
His goal is to find a crystal hidden in a sylvan cave that belonged to another scribe and can help with completion of the manuscript. Time runs short, as the faceless marauders approach and begin to lay waste to the community.
Director Moore's animation captures superbly the vitality of a time when western civilization was still battling a more primitive world. Brendan's imagination provides the route into a world of almost overwhelmingly conflicting energies. As he struggles with his own conflicting impulses, he learns how books, laboriously copied one by one and magnificently illustrated, offer a form of salvation.
At time when modern media have increasingly devalued the place of books and reading in our culture, the message of "The Secret of Kells" is a welcome and inspirational one.
"The Secret of Kells," Friday, April 2, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members and children under 12. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards regularly writes on film for The Times.