Sylph discovery

Roan Inish rescues the fairies from the Industrial Revolution; ugly duckling finds herself in Muriel's Wedding

“The Industrial Revolution,” proclaims Prue, the most politically minded temptress in the film Sirens, “killed all the fairies.” Textile mills tore farmers from the fields, and the machine age similarly uprooted the magic that bound together the lore, the land and the simple folk who built their lives upon them. Leprechauns and pixies disappeared in the twilight of the graveyard shift, casualties of a workaday world dictated by the time clock, not the end of the rainbow.

Likewise those who drew their subsistence from the sea: Forced to abandon the ebb and flow of their traditional lifestyle, they adopted a rhythm of factory and pub, a landlocked routine with little room for the nymphs who rode the waves with fishermen of yore. This cultural dislocation lies at the heart of The Secret of Roan Inish, John Sayles' beguiling new film. While the lighthearted eroticism of Sirens is as far from Roan Inish as the lush mountains of Australia are from the windswept west coast of Ireland, both follow naifs who recover a primal energy submerged by civilization's progress. And Prue's pronouncement about the departed fairies is the unspoken leit-motif of Sayles' lyrical tale. Call it a voyage of sylph discovery.

The Secret of Roan Inish revolves around fair-haired Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney), whose young eyes reflect a sadness as deep as the soul. Broken by the loss of his wife and infant son, Fiona's father spends his days in a sweatshop and his evenings in a drunken haze in a city “full of dirt, noise and people that have lost their sense.” So the wee lass is sent back into the west, where her grandparents still scrape a living from the sea. Away in the distance lies their ancestral home, Roan Inish, “seal island.”

Fiona finds herself instinctively drawn to Roan Inish, abandoned as the country's future shifted eastward. All that's left of the island village is a clutch of derelict buildings, the black rocks, the cold waves and the hard sky above. Or is it?

Piecing together unfinished stories, Fiona learns the origin of her family's “dark ones,” born one to a generation with hair black as a stormy sea. Her cousin Tadhg (John Lynch), said to be a bit touched in the head, recounts how an ancestor married a Selkie, a creature half woman and half seal who eventually returned to the deep. The last born of her bloodline was Jamie, Fiona's brother, whose cradle was carried away by the tide when the Coneellys packed up and left Roan Inish. Then Fiona hears talk that a little boy with a thatch of dark curls has been seen on the island, and The Secret of Roan Inish floats gently toward its conclusion.

Adapted from Rosalie K. Fry's popular novella, Roan Inish unfolds with quiet persistence. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler keeps the camera close to the ground, preserving a child's sense of simplicity and possibility. Like Into the West, Mike Newell's romp into the realm of Celtic myth, Roan Inish delicately weaves more mature cultural and economic themes into the fabric of its straightforward storytelling. Though Fiona's grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) tend to speak in homilies, their homespun wisdom feels as genuine as the girl's innate curiosity.

Unlike Newell's film, Roan Inish pays little heed to the promised land that lies beyond Ireland's westernmost shore. Instead, it's a quiet plea to stanch the cycle of generational loss, the steady erosion of the old ways like sandy footprints in the tide. Its spirit is deftly embodied by Tadhg, “a troubled soul trapped between earth and water,” but a survivor just the same. “I've no idea of the future, but I can see the past,” Tadhg states, matter-of-factly. “And the present, when the weather's clear.”

A coming-of-age with considerably narrower horizons is Muriel's Wedding, P.J. Hogan's upbeat ugly-duckling tale. Another lively Australian import that feels like it was written on a jukebox, Muriel follows in the footsteps of Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, hitching a shopworn plot onto a boisterous, retro soundtrack. The focus of this Cinder-ella story is Muriel (the delightful Toni Collette), whose transformation carries her from wallflower to wedding of the century.

Shunned by the superficial sheilas she thought were her pals — “Let her finish her Orgasm,” says the most compassionate of the cocktail-teasing chicks before the brushoff — Muriel flees her coastal backwater and lands in Sydney, where she meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), whose “whole life is one last fling after another.” There, Muriel's matrimonial dream materializes, albeit in a marriage of convenience. So will she forget her new true friend?

The answer is no surprise, though writer-director Hogan does produce a few in his spot-on characterizations, principally Muriel's father (Bill Hunter) and Muriel herself. Collette's gleefully wide-eyed performance uncannily echoes the career of Ricki Lake (go figure), rebounding from round mound to talk of the town.

But despite its “liberated” denouement, Muriel has a remarkably conventional core (the promiscuous Rhonda lands in a wheelchair) and might be called Miramax's first real “Disney” flick since its takeover by the Magic Kingdom. Pretending to shed its pro-matrimony message, the film ends up an uneven, slightly disappointing fairy tale; think One Wedding and a Funeral. Her fantasy fulfilled, Muriel's life is “just like an ABBA song.” Indeed.

The Secret of Roan Inish opens Fri, March 17, at the Clay in S.F. and the Act One/Two in Berkeley. Muriel's Wedding opens Fri, March 17, at the Kabuki and Northpoint in S.F., the Piedmont and UA Berkeley.

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