Secret of Roan Inish by John Sayle

The Secret of Roan Inish (1995) is John Sayles' “corrective” film to a genre in which most characters have been boys. Sayles explores a young girl who's alone in the world–in other words, an outsider. He takes a straightforward approach to Rosalie K. Fry's mythic novella, about the determination of Fiona Connelly (Jeni Courtney) to unveil secrets from her family's past, like the curious disappearances of humans, the strange power of animals.

After the death of her mother, Fionna's father sends her to live with her grandparents on Ireland's isolated coast. The elderly couple, who used to own houses near Roan Inish island, linger over the past. Grandfather Hugh tells Fiona of the disappearance of her infant brother, Jamie, who floated to the sea in his cradle and never came back. And her cousin recounts the legend of Liam, who fell in love with a beautiful selkie, half animal half seal.

These stories motivate Fiona to take action and though she gets assistance from her cousin, she is a self-reliant heroine, a fairy-tale princess with a feisty spirit. For Sayles, what Fiona wants is traditional, to bring her family back together, but she's doing things that are adult, even though she's still a kid, and she does the hard work, without relying on magic, as is often the case in fables.

Like all fairy tales, The Secret of Roan Inish underlines the strong links that humans have to their physical surrounding (“What the sea will take, the sea must have”) and to the animal world. Haskell Wexler, who also shot Sayles' epic “Matewan,” imbues the film with magical lighting.