Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize back in 2008, and now writer and director Jim Sheridan has adapted the Irish story from page to screen. The plot centres around mental hospital patient Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave) who has spent fifty years in an institute after she was reported to have brutally murdered her new-born baby. With plans set in motion to demolish the home and for a flat redevelopment, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) is sent to assess her state of mind. A dark past is soon revealed through both the scribbles and sketches in her beloved Bible which give the film its name, and in flashback sequences were Rooney Mara takes the leading role as the young protagonist.
Both in Roseanne’s past and her present, the narrative is patchy, far-fetched and at times preposterous. As written fiction, this may have worked without room for question, well but on the cinematic stage there is a considerable reliance on the cast to keep it from becoming ridiculous. Luckily, there is an abundance of fine acting talent involved and the performances don’t fail to deliver, particularly from Rooney Mara who is spellbinding throughout.
With a spot-on Irish accent and pale porcelain features, she appears at home against the vast green landscapes which are beautifully captured by Russian cinematographer Mikhail Krichman. She possesses the same wide-eyed vulnerability that she portrayed so brilliantly in Carol, but blends this with charm and supreme inner-strength. She shares convincing chemistry with the ever-likeable cheeky-chappy Jack Reynor who plays her husband Michael, and tense moments of conflict with twisted Father Gaunt, a role executed with vicious villainy by Theo James. Vanessa Redgrave is also terrific, carrying the weight of Roseanne’s sadness as she tells her tale of woe.
In Jim Sheridan’s exploitative handling of its tragically disturbing subject matter, The Secret Scripture is like the sinister sister of Philomena, exploring the cloaked secrets and manipulative methods of the Roman Catholic community in times and religious and political trouble. Where the writing falters in its rather heavy-handed approach, the talented performers pick up the slack. If nothing else, it is a showcase to remind us how strong an actress Rooney Mara can be in a leading role. Her on-screen magnetism lends itself perfectly to Roseanne McNulty in one of the performances of the year so far.