`The Secret of Roan Inish' Is Told With Myth, Magic

John Sayles departs from realm of social issues with his latest film

`The Secret of Roan Inish'' reveals a side of John Sayles that we don't often see.

A fiercely independent filmmaker with a strong humanistic streak, Sayles is best known for pictures focusing on social issues. His works include ``Matewan,'' about a labor dispute; ``Eight Men Out,'' about corruption in baseball; ``Lianna,'' about changing views of women and gay people; and his best movie, ``The Brother From Another Planet,'' which views American race relations through the eyes of a man fleeing similar problems in a galaxy far, far away.

Fill out this list with pictures like ``Return of the Secaucus Seven'' and ``City of Hope,'' and it's clear Sayles likes to fix his attention on pressing contemporary issues which makes his new picture quite a surprise, since it trafficks in magic and myth from beginning to end. Its main characters are ordinary folks, to be sure, and Sayles takes care to detail the hard realities of their working-class lives. Still, the point of his story is that legends have a truth all their own, full of relevance and comfort to the people who believe in them.

The tale begins on Ireland's western coast, in a village where many residents have bittersweet memories of former homes they had to abandon because of changes in the local economy. Two such folks are Hugh and Tess, an aging couple who once lived on Roan Inish, an island that seems sadly distant even though it's visible from their seaside windows on a clear day.

Their lives undergo another change when they become the guardians of Fiona, their 10-year-old granddaughter. Much of the story is seen through her eyes, as she explores her new environment, hears lore and legends from the people who live there, and dreams of the day when she'll visit the offshore island that casts such a nostalgic spell over her family.

There's special power in two of the tales Fiona is told by new acquaintances - how her own baby brother was lost at sea in a floating cradle, and how her clan is descended from a ``selkie,'' a mermaidlike creature that's part woman, part seal. We see these legends as the little girl envisions them, and we discover that they're not merely legends when we accompany her to Roan Inish, where the climax of the movie takes place.

In outline, ``The Secret of Roan Inish'' has all the ingredients for a sure-fire family entertainment, complete with magical fairy tales, wide-eyed adventures involving little violence or sexuality, and likable on-screen kinfolk to keep us company along the way.

As things turn out, the movie is less irresistible than it would like to be, mainly because Sayles is not a very graceful filmmaker. His heavy style is more suited to social realism than to the fanciful flights that Roan Inish inspires. He seems most involved with his Irish material when he's documenting the wishes, regrets, and day-to-day experiences of the most ordinary characters; the more-mythical aspects of the picture certainly interest him, but he doesn't manage to find the subtle resonances that would have made the story seem real as well as charming.

Still, there's much to enjoy in ``The Secret of Roan Inish,'' in- cluding the spunky acting of Jeni Courtney as the young heroine and Eileen Colgan and Mick Lally as her grandparents. The vivid photography of northwestern Ireland is by Haskell Wexler, whose long credit list includes ``Matewan,'' one of Sayles's best pictures. Mason Daring, a regular Sayles collaborator composed the effective music.

* Rated PG; contains a few scenes that may be too intense for younger children.

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