Movie Review: “The Secret of Kells” (2009)

Title: The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb
Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s)
Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
Score Composer: Bruno Coulais
Length: 75 minutes
Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind…
Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music…
Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings.
Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right.
Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.

Key Thoughts

[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]

Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.

The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.

The Abbott has filled his room with chalk plans for the fortifications. He thinks of little else. After all, the people of the village look to him for protection.

You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.

An epic goose chase...(I love the goose's expression here!)

The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.

Apparently, all those jars and doodads are the real ingredients needed to make inks. The artists researched well.

As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.

Forgive me, but this reminded me of the scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where Li Mu Bai and Jen pause on a tree branch in a forest canopy in the middle of one of their duels. Another beautiful movie, that.

The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.

Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.

Freaky!

Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.

The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.

In the DVD commentary, the artists actually said that their inspiration for the birch trees in the winter scenes was the art of Bill Waterson from Calvin & Hobbes! As if we needed more reasons to love this movie.

If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.

I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

– John 1:5

*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.

Credits: Screencaps from Screened.com

Advertisements

Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

27 thoughts on “Movie Review: “The Secret of Kells” (2009)”

  1. Note to those who read this review within the first ten minutes of its posting: I’ve already edited it a few times, adding more pictures and an extra paragraph! So consider those, too. +) Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Thalia and I watched this film earlier this year. It really is gorgeous…but I, too, wished there’d been more detail on illumination (I need to get one of those crystals!).

    1. I know, one of those crystals would be awesome! Actually, that’s another thing I wished the movie would have explained more. They talked about the crystal in awed voices, about how it’s essential to the master illuminator’s art, but left us to guess why. It seems to be a magnifying glass, so the artist can work tinier detail in.

  3. Ah! I’m so glad you got around to reviewing this one—seriously, one of my favorite animated films to date. Having studied Illuminated manuscripts in college, it was a delight to see elements of the pages I was so familiar with popping up in corners (especially having the Chi-Ro page as one of the big items used in the story!). I understand the filmmakers decision to leave the nature of the book unexplained, but I wish that the “Light” had been given a more directed naming than its vague benevolence. They are monks, after all.

    Question, relatedly–in you research, did you ever find an explanation to the earrings on the monks’ ears? I was curious about that.

    Lovely film, lovely review.

    1. Michelle, from what I’ve heard, the earrings the monks were–more properly called ear cuffs–were a rather common piece of Celtic jewelry for both men and women. I’m not aware any special significance.

    2. I wish they’d actually shown the Chi-Ro page! I immediately went to look it up afterwards. And yeah, it did feel a bit odd that these monks never mentioned God or the Bible, and I’m not ready to give the filmmakers a complete pass on that, but ultimately it doesn’t hurt the story much. The art is breathtaking. I admit, the following Sunday I found myself doodling Celtic swirls and triangles on the back of my sermon notes.

      Taliesintaleweaver: thanks for that info. It’s a great question Michelle asked, one I hadn’t even noticed to ask. My research hadn’t taught me about that before; to be honest, I didn’t read much of the many books on monks and monastic movements that my medievalist professor assigned me for his class on the medieval Church. I still have them, though…

  4. Oh, I love this movie. I agree with your review wholeheartedly, except that I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that the movie never actually mentions Christianity. I feel that more people who wouldn’t usually watch ‘Christian’ movies might watch this and then look up the Book of Kells and discover its identity on their own, which I think would make the revelation that much more impactful, and also lessens the chance of audiences being turned off by a ‘preachy’ movie.

    Just my two cents. And I absolutely love the screen shots you found, make me want to watch the movie again.

    1. Well, I can understand that they wanted to reach a wide audience and not risk being called a “Christian” movie, but I don’t buy the argument that it might be more effective in leading people to the Bible this way. What you describe could occur for a few people here and there, but most will just enjoy this beautiful but Christ-less movie and then move on, without really thinking about the Book of Kells itself much. When I went to read up on the Book, being a medievalist and loving this stuff, I was impressed to read about how so much of the monks’ attention and creativity went into illustrating the specific themes in the Scripture of the pages. It would have made sense for the movie to bring this up. Now as I said, it ultimately doesn’t hurt the movie that much; it’s not a mistake or an error so much as an omission they didn’t have to make.

      Thanks — one of the reasons I love doing movie reviews is that I get to fill the review with cool pictures. +) I was delighted to find these online, although I could have gotten more from the DVD if I’d needed them. I’m also glad I was able to fit one of them into a header for this page. I try to do that for all my film and TV reviews.

  5. I love this film. The artwork is unique and takes a little getting used to, but it is truly beautiful and engaging. The mythology is fresh in the fact that it’s from a different culture than we’re normally exposed to. The story is simply wonderful.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree, of course. Despite the undeniable popularity of Celtic stuff, we don’t really see Irish myth of Celtic Christianity in the movies very often.

  6. Even the snowflakes are little falling Celtic knots! I fell instantly in love with this movie when I watched it the first time during a university lecture I was visiting and went out to buy it the next day. The song Aisling sings when she changes Pangur Ban into a little ghost kitty is so hauntingly beautiful!

    FYI: ‘Aisling’ is derived from the Irish word for dream-vision. And look into the history of the cat Pangur Ban. He is quite a famous cat to those of us who love medieval Irish manuscripts! At the very end of the movie during the credits, you will hear a voice reading a poem that was scribbled into the margins of a manuscript long ago…

    1. I know, that’s such a cool connection! I learned about that (the poem and Pangur Ban) before watching the movie. I didn’t know what Aisling means, so that adds another layer. Anglicized it becomes Ashley, although the two names have different etymologies and meanings.

    1. I do love Irish accents and tend to be a bit biased towards movies that feature especially nice ones. The animation style is definitely a bit different for both of these movies (“Kells” and “Song of the Sea”), and it took me a little bit to get used to also. My parents had a harder time adjusting to it, but I think it’s lovely.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s