The Secret of Kells
Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:9 (#338) in September 2010.]
I had high expectations for this film, which weren’t entirely met. I liked that it was out of the ordinary: an indie animated film from Ireland (with help from Belgium and France), rather than a big-studio release from the U.S. or Japan. Its use of Celtic art, images, history and legend is a refreshing change from the usual subjects of animated films. And given that it had been nominated for an Academy Award and honored at several film festivals, yet had extremely limited release in the U.S., I had been looking forward to it for some months.
The first thing that disconcerted me was that the characters, and most of the backgrounds, were drawn in a very simplistic, almost geometric style, without any subtleties of shading. This style is well suited for TV, and would come across quite well on the small screen, but in a movie theater it is a distinct disadvantage, unless one is sitting rather far from the screen. However, once I got used to the style, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the artwork.
Then there’s the story itself. It’s fairly straightforward: In medieval Ireland, a young monk named Brendan idolizes master illuminator Brother Aidan of Iona and wants to help him complete his famous book, but his uncle the Abbot of Kells wants everyone in the abbey to work on building a wall to keep out invading Norsemen. Brendan sneaks into the forbidden forest, meets a forest spirit in the guise of a little girl named Ainsling (pronounced “Ashley”), dares to encounter the evil spirit Crom Cruich, gains the tools and skills of manuscript illumination, flees the barbarian invasion, and eventually completes the Book of Kells himself. Turns out the Abbot was wrong and Brendan was right. I leave it to others more knowledgeable than myself to judge the historical and mythological accuracy of the events and characters depicted, but the story as presented does touch on some interesting themes, such as the relative societal priorities of Defense and the Arts. It did seem odd to me that there wasn’t more emphasis on the conflict between Christianity and the old pagan beliefs; the brothers of the abbey don’t seem to notice that their faith is being contradicted by reality right under their noses.
But there are nice touches in this film. The artwork, though simplistically stylized, draws heavily on Celtic art and design, which becomes especially effective in the scene with Crom Cruich. There is a good use of symbolism, both in the content and style. The geometric quality of the art allows the invaders to be depicted as mere dark angular shapes, which dehumanizes them and increases their sense of menace. I also liked that the story emphasizes the importance of books and the preservation of knowledge; although curiously enough, all we ever see of the Book of Kells is its graphic design (i.e., illumination), and nothing of the verbal content, so the preservation of knowledge theme is sadly undermined.
For some reason that I can’t put my finger on, there is an aspect of this film that reminds me very much of the Narnia stories. It’s more than just that a young person from our world enters Faerie and returns (which is a motif in many fantasy stories). There seemed to me to be a quality of “that fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic” that Tolkien mentioned in his letters. I felt it most strongly whenever the character of Ainsling was on screen, so maybe there was a real magical spirit in the film after all.