Review by Charles Kenny (ASIFA-East’s civil engineer-in-residence).
In true Irish fashion, better late than never. When I first thought about reviewing the film, I had no idea it would be so difficult, and, after seeing it, to be able to sum it up in more than one word is very difficult indeed. The Secret of Kells is a film unlike any other, and not just because it’s Irish!
Brendan is an orphan, living in a place called Kells (in Irish, Ceannas, or “Great Chief Abode”) where his uncle, Ceallach (played by Brendan Gleeson) is the abbot of the monastery. Brendan is a mischievous boy, much to consternation of his uncle, who is always trying to warn him about the great dangers the settlement currently faces from the Vikings or ‘Noresmen’.
One day, Brother Aidan (ably voiced by renowned actor Mick Lally) appears, carrying with him the Book of Iona, an illuminated manuscript of fabled beauty. Slowly but surely he teaches Brendan the calligraphy skills he once learned. It is through assisting Brother Aidan that Brendan meets Aisling, a mysterious girl who inhabits the forest outside Kells and despite being unimpressed by his presence (“What are you doing in my forest”), takes the young lad on a fantastic adventure through a forest unlike any you will have seen before.
The film is less of a tale of childhood adventure and more of a look back at a time when there was a real and implied danger that Europe would succumb to the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. In this, the film is admirably accurate in its portrayal of Ireland as the apparent savior of western civilization.
The film has been noted for it’s religious theme; the Book of Kells being in actuality, the four Gospels. Yet the film is not overtly religious in nature with much effort being placed on making the film as universally acceptable as possible. In this regard the producers have been remarkably adroit and deserve much credit for what could have severely limited the appeal of such an amazing movie.
The Secret of Kells is first and foremost a visual film. Director Tomm Moore (ably assisted by Nora Twomey) and his team have produced something that far outshines anything mainstream cinema has seen before. To call many scenes stunning is to do them a great disservice. Every shot is a fantastic feast for the eyes. Indeed, so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it is almost a fault. Colors are rich, green is in great supply (naturally), shapes abound everywhere and movement is as fluid as can imagine.
The design, heavily influenced by Irish and Celtic history, has been pulled into the modern era of animation in a way that astounded this reviewer. Traditional cel animation is combined with Flash in a fashion that is the most seamless I have seen to date. It is almost impossible to spot the difference, which is exactly the policy of Hayao Miyazaki and his films are about as visually beautiful as traditional animation comes.
Tomm Moore has successfully established himself as a director of note with Kells. The quality of the direction is superb, not only in the shots used but how they are executed. There are no gimmicks here, you will find no “money shot”, every scene has been selected for maximum effect. In his unique style, Moore imbues shades of Samurai Jack, playing on time, space and perspective in a way that simultaneously withdraws the viewer from reality yet never leaves it. Slowly building throughout, the climax flows with the full force of a thousand years of history behind it and left me staring at the screen in awestruck wonder.
The characters are gorgeous, sorry, I can’t say anything less. The protagonists are in the same style as the rest of the film, but it is the Norsemen who bring true dimension to the story. Portrayed not as men, but rather, dark, menacing figures, they prey in packs and leave no stone unturned. Their menace is felt throughout the film and leads to a strong, dark undertone that is never far from the surface.
The music is, in parts, haunting. Harmonic choirs create an atmosphere of awe that heightens the senses, bagpipes whine in sorrow and pain and traditional Irish music plays on the light-hearted nature of Brendan and Aisling. Thoughtful, pondering and entirely appropriate, Bruno Coulas and Kíla deserve much credit for adding the cherry on top of a delicious sundae.
The Secret of Kells’ faults are minor in nature. There were many aspects of the story that I took for granted but other’s would not. For example, the explanation of the importance of the book could use more emphasis; some people I talked to have said that although the understood the story, they failed to see why protecting the book was as important as is made out to be. The length of the film, coming in at just over 90 minutes, is appropriate for the story, but one can’t help but wish for more, if just to admire the visuals. If I had to name a big fault, it is that the film required numerous grants to be completed and it left me wondering why such beautifully creative films need so much public support just to get made.
The Secret of Kells left me feeling that the latent homegrown animating talent in Ireland has at long last been released to the world and is proof that the country can create content that has universal appeal.
My final thoughts: go see it when during its more widespread US release either later this year or early next. It really is one of those films you simply must see on the big screen in order to fully appreciate it.
Editor’s note: The Secret of Kells US premiere on July 18th was presented by the New York Children’s Animation Festival. Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, Ponyo, will be screened on August 9th. For more information visit gkids.tv online.