Review / ‘The Secret Scripture’ (M) *** and a half

THIS is the second film to have a Canberra season that focuses on the pervasive and, some might also say, pernicious attitudes of minor Irish clergy toward young women “considered guilty of licentiousness, unwed motherhood or prostitution”, as I wrote in 2013 when reviewing “Philomena” that told a true story with a similar focus and to which, for the best of reasons, I gave four and a half stars.

“The Secret Scripture” tells a fictional story using a screenplay by director Jim Sheridan adapting a novel by Sebastian Barry. St Malachy’s mental hospital has been sold to developers. All the patients have been moved to other establishments except Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) who refuses to move. Dr Grene (Eric Bana) and a nurse (Susan Lynch) get the task of getting Rose settled down so she can be safely relocated.

In her battered old Bible, Rose has recorded events from the 1940s when as a young woman (Rooney Mara) she rescued downed Spitfire pilot Michael (Jack Reynor) from the tree into which he got entangled after bailing out. Irish nationalists would like to capture and kill him. On the other hand, Rose is about to fall in love with him. They wed in secret. After the nationalists execute Michael, Father Gaunt (Theo James) moves Rose to St Malachy’s from which she escapes and gives birth in a cave on the edge of the sea.

The film pulls no punches in its depiction of conditions at St Malachy’s. The nuns are unkind. There is a sense of sexual anger in their treatment of the patients and their babies. The story’s issue comes down to resolving Rose’s unremitting conviction that her baby did not die in the sea.

As indeed it didn’t. The denouement may be a tad pretentious but that does not diminish the film’s merit as a story well told. And both actresses do great jobs portraying Rose.

At Palace Electric and Dendy

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