Jim Sheridan on making The Secret Scripture in Ireland

Oscar-nominated Irish director Jim Sheridan's new film The Secret Scripture brings Sebastian Barry's acclaimed novel to the big screen. David Roy spoke to the Dublin-based film-maker about his first movie shot in Ireland in 20 years

Rooney Mara as Rose and Jack Reynor as Michael in Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture

JIM Sheridan's new movie adaptation of Booker Prize-shortlisted best-seller The Secret Scripture boasts an all-star cast of Irish and international talents.

It's testament to Sheridan's multi-Oscar-nominated reputation that the Dublin-born writer/director was able to secure the services of highly rated actors including Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Vanessa Redgrave, Jack Reynor, Aidan Turner (Poldark) and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Love/Hate) for his reworking of Sebastian Barry's 2008 novel.

It's a twisty tale of an Irishwoman, Rose McNulty, who has spent her life in a mental institution for the 'crime' of being too attractive to the men in a fictional Co Sligo village – including the local priest, Fr Gaunt (Theo James) – during the Second World War.

Mara plays the young version of Rose, a Protestant evacuated from Belfast to lodge with her aunt in the deceptively charming Ballytivan, which acts as an avatar for the punitatively patriarchal Catholic Church-ruled Ireland of the 1940s when republicans regarded Irishmen who volunteered for war against the Germans as traitors.

The precise nature of the village's dark heart is gradually revealed to kindly psychiatrist Dr Grene (Eric Bana) when he discovers the bible in which the elderly Rose (Redgrave) has documented horrendous details of a four-decade ordeal which has cost her freedom, true love – with kindly mechanic-turned RAF man Michael (Jack Reynor) and her only child.

Fans of the book should note that, as screenwriter, Sheridan made many changes to The Secret Scripture during its transition from page to screen – an evolutionary process which did not begun under his authorship.

The director's interest in the project was initially piqued by a draft screenplay from the late Johnny Ferguson (Gangster No 1), who receives a co-credit for the work completed before his death in 2013.

"I got to the story through the screenplay and not through the book," confirms Sheridan, who previously adapted Christy Brown's autobiography My Left Foot into his acclaimed 1989 feature debut starring Daniel Day-Lewis before going on to tackle John B Keane's play The Field for the 1990 film with the late Richard Harris and John Hurt.

"I was talking to Johnny and doin' notes and trying to figure it out. He wanted me to do it and I wasn't sure – and then he died unexpectedly.

"So I said, 'ah f*** it, I'll do it', y'know?"

While Sheridan reveals that Sebastian Barry himself "never talked to me" during the making of the film, the novelist has since commented to the press that "the things that are important to me are not there" in the movie version, adding "it's not a bad film, it is just Jim's film".

"The only thing I didn't change was the end, really," agrees Sheridan, for whom The Secret Scripture marks a return to film-making in Ireland 20 years after his Belfast-set Troubles piece, The Boxer.

"But the present day story is more or less parallel to what's in the book, y'know?

"It's just so difficult doing a literary book – it's a different animal altogether."

The rural west of Ireland scenery in the film is beautifully captured by Mikhail Krichman, whose dramatic lensing helps provide a suitably sweeping period backdrop to the doomed romance at the core of the film's story.

"He's brilliant," enthuses Sheridan, who worked with the Russian cinematographer for the first time during the shoot. "He'd the fastest I've ever worked with and he did a brilliant job."

The writer/director is also full of praise for his players.

"It's an amazing cast," he tells me of The Secret Scripture's star-studded ensemble. "I loved them all and I thought Vanessa was great in it, y'know?"

However, it seems that sometimes Sheridan's fondness for encouraging spontaneity while directing was at odds with this 80-year-old screen veteran's own personal style.

"I think it was difficult for her to go the way I do it," the director explains. "She had to really prepare just to get it right, so a lot of times I would just do [the scene] exactly word for word.

"Then, I would kind of go to those 'other' places with the younger guys after we'd done the scene as it was written."

The English star shares many of her scenes with Australian actor Eric Bana, who plays Irish (with an accent which occasionally hops back and forth across the border) as the doctor determined to extract the truth of Rose's tale from her confused recollections while visiting her at a mental hospital run by Adrian Dunbar's coldly pragmatic medicrat.

The pair enjoy an easy, gentle chemistry, which effectively foreshadows the dramatic revelations of the film's final act.

"He's great, he's a very good actor," Sheridan tells me of working with Bana, adding that "he's also very kind and helped Vanessa a lot too."

Rooney Mara has a tricky task as the young, strikingly beautiful incarnation of Rose, who suffers a succession of indignities and outrages at the hands of society and the state guaranteed to provoke incredulity and outrage from modern audiences – particularly here in Ireland, where viewers will be all too aware of the story's shameful historic authenticity.

"It's a difficult role, because there's not a lot to do," agrees the director. "She's put-upon for no reason, so you have to be very careful with how that's played. I think the quieter and simpler it's kept, the better – and Rooney was expert at that."

Sheridan goes on to explain that part of the appeal of The Secret Scripture for him was that, for all its horrific happenings, it at least ends on a refreshingly upbeat note.

"I thought that the ending, while some people have problems with it, at least it gives the woman a victory for once, y'know?" he says.

"I was so f***in' tired of all these movies about the poor put-upon women in the Magdalens and all. It was like, let's hit back for a change."

Having made his name with a trio of films starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot before going on to star in 1993's In The Name of The Father (earning a second Oscar-nod for playing Guildford Four man Gerry Conlon) and The Boxer (1997), fans often wonder if Sheridan would consider reuniting with the Irish acting great for a fourth film project.

The answer, it seems, is 'yes'.

"I'd love him to do Lockerbie," Sheridan tells me of his mooted film based on the story of Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and has long believed that Libyan national Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was framed for the atrocity.

"It would be great to work with Daniel again. I love him and we've stayed friendly.

"I'll probably give him the script and see what he says."

:: The Secret Scripture (12A, 108 mins) is in selected cinemas now.


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