Mark Reviews Movies

THE SECRET OF KELLS

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tomm Moore

Cast: The voices of Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Christen Mooney

MPAA Rating: NR

Running Time: 1:15

Release Date: 3/12/10 (limited); 6/25/10 (re-release)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 24, 2010

The plot and thematic concerns of The Secret of Kells are secondary.  The spirit of the film is in and about its art style.

The characters, like the animation, are slim (drawn in sharp lines and curves), succinctly described by one or two adjectives, and the plot amounts to little more than searching and fetching.  The film succeeds in the way director Tomm Moore mixes and matches visual motifs to isolate different locales and still find the unity between them through the imagination of a young boy assigned to complete the illumination of a famous tome.

Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire), a curious child, lives in the Abbey of Kells, where his main interest is in the production of books.  An orphan, Brendan's uncle Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson), the abbot, watches over the boy as well as the construction of a massive wall surrounding the abbey and its neighboring village.  The Vikings have invaded medieval Ireland, laying waste to everything in their wake.

One refugee of the attacks is Aidan (voice of Mick Lally), a famed manuscript artist who holds in his possession an even more legendary, ancient text, worked on for generations.  Aidan finds himself in Kells, and Brendan becomes his apprentice.  The boy's first task: Find berries for ink in the forest.  There, he meets a nimble fairy named Aisling (voice of Christen Mooney).

The thematic tapestry of the film is vast.  Weaving together the beauties of nature, the results of fear on a community, the importance of art in sustaining a culture, the relationship between humanity and the world around it, and a coming-of-age tale, the script by Fabrice Ziolkowski never quite develops any of these threads to sustain the story on their own.

Instead, it is left to Moore and his animators to bring the mixture of history and myth to life.  The self-reflective design, which sees the world in the same visual language of the book, helps solidify Ziolkowski's outline in fantastic imagery.

Aisling's forest is assembled of Celtic knots of fine detail, which are brought into clear focus in a scene that has Brendan scaling a tree.  The entrance to the forest is an archway of trees, an image that brings to mind a sacred structure.  The pattern is in the vein of the Book of Kells, highlighting Aidan and the film's marriage of the natural and spiritual world.  The artist tells his student to look at the wonders of the world beyond the walls for miracles, and here, for the first time outside of the abbey, he finds them.

The abbey, meanwhile, is drawn in squares and jagged lines, in contrast to the forest's circular imagining.  When Brendan must once again find an object for his teacher, a strange crystal guarded by an evil spirit called Crom Cruach, he once again encounters the same sort of horror that Cellach's anxiety has raised in the abbey.  The beast is in the form of a boxy eel, and Brendan uses his artistic talents to defend himself, literally drawing a circle around the monster, turning it into an Ouroboros.  The evil, as Brendan teaches his master, is always more than one creature and will continue to feed upon itself.

Moore's storytelling relies much on the creative outputs of the characters, leading to succinct character points (The floor of Cellach's observatory tower is covered in a barebones sketch of the abbey and its planned wall) and some flashes of the dreamy and nightmarish.  Brendan watches as the book's pages flip, spotting its ornamental flourishes leap from between the sheets.  The Vikings arrive, casting the abbey in a deep red of flames from their arrows and—implied but never shown—the blood of the townsfolk (When the raiders get their hands on the volume, nothing pops out for them).  Also particularly effective is later transitional sequence, showing the passage of distance in three framed images that shifts into a passage of time.

The Secret of Kells overcomes its shortcomings of narrative and theme with intricate and striking technique.  It is a lovely film, clearly lovingly assembled.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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