Guys, I’ll be honest. I haven’t been this daunted by a review since Frozen
. First you have the fact that this is an absolutely adored
film with a lot of fans amongst readers of this very blog, and then you have the fact that the movie is Irish (well, an Irish-Franco-Belgian co-production) and the fact that I’m
Irish (well, an Irish-Greek co-production) and that people seem to think that gives me some kind of special insight into this movie. I mean what are you expecting, that I’m just going to emerge from my turf cottage and impart some ancient Gaelic wisdom through the haze of my clay pipe?
“Yes, now quit stalling.”
Okay, okay. Special insight. Special insight. Let me see. Okay. You know that episode of the Simpsons where they’re crossing from the American embassy into Australia and Homer’s all “Look boy! Now I’m in America! Now I’m in Australia! America! Australia!” and so on and so forth? Imagine an entire culture built around that joke and you have the Irish. We’re obsessed with borders. OBSESSED. The places in space and time where one thing ends and another starts. Ask an American when summer begins and they’ll say “Ohhhh, round about Memorial day, I guess?”. Ask an Irish person when summer begins and they’ll say “01 May. Midnight. Greenwich Mean time. And not a second before.” Borders are where things get weird, where things aren’t one thing or another. Why is Halloween so creepy? Because Samhain occurs on October 31st, right when Autumn ends and Winter begins on the Gaelic calendar. It’s at times like that when the…things in the other world can cross into ours. This fear and fascination with borders runs bone deep in the Irish psyche and ties into our historic relationship with the fairy realm. My wife is a dyed in the wool atheist, but she would not enter a fairy ring if you paid her. You just don’t do that.
“IT’S COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!”
Secret of Kells is a very Irish movie, and I don’t just mean because it draws so heavily on Irish mythology, art and history and features some of the greatest Irish actors to have been claimed as British by the English media at some point. It’s obessed with lines drawn between over here and over there, between light and dark, between faith and fear and between civilization and the wild wood.
It is also feckin’ smurges.
So. Background. Secret of Kells is the product of Cartoon Saloon, which began as a loose animator’s collective in 1999 and has now produced four full length animated features, two of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. Despite this incredibly small filmography, Cartoon Saloon is already considered to be on a par with Studio Ghibli. Clearly, Irish Animation has come a long way since Daithí Lacha.
HE WAS TERRIBLE.
But is the praise justified? Yes. Is the movie as good as YES. Does it YES. Whatever hypothetical question I could ask the answer is almost definitely YES.
Let’s take a look.
So our story begins in the monastery of Kells where Brendan (Evan McGuire) is trying to catch a goose. Brendan lives with his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) who is obsessed with building a wall to keep the Vikings out (and he’s gonna make the Vikings pay for it too! It’s gonna be the best wall you ever saw! Terrific!). The opening scenes are done in the style of medieval manuscript, with very little perspective but a wealth of colour and tiny, intricate detail.
Behind the characters in the foreground, far away in the distance you can see tiny people working on the wall, almost the size of ants, but perfectly animated. It perfectly sets up the movie as something unlike anything you’ve seen before, its style is neither Disney-esque nor anime-esque, but entirely its own.
Brendan is trying to catch the goose because its feathers are needed to make quills for illustrating. He’s helped by four monks; Brother Square from Britain, Brother Tang from China, Brother Leonardo from Italy and Brother Assoua from holeeeeeee shit are you kidding me?
Guys I have no idea. I swear to God. I have no idea who thought this design was a good idea, or why nobody stopped and said “Hey, this dude’s lips seem to be a smaller face within his face, is that normal?” I have no idea who’s at fault here so I’m just going to blame the Belgian animators who worked on this sequence and move on.
But why are all these monks from all around the world in this medieval Irish monastery anyway? Is this just some cack-handed attempt at political correctness (bit late for that anyway) by having a racially diverse monastery? Believe it or not, no. This is actually not that far from reality. If you wanted to learn to read Latin in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire the best schools on the continent were in the Irish monasteries and they often had student bodies as diverse as any modern college. Okay China is probably a bit of a stretch but Britain, Italy and Africa? Most definitely. Medieval Ireland was actually on a trade route that ran from the west coast, down to Spain and Portugal and all the way down to North Africa. And in fact, some of the dye used in the Book of Kells itself was imported all the way from Afghanistan.
The monks and Brendan run into Cellach, who coldly tells Brendan to bring him the plans for the wall he requested, and tells the monks that tomorrow they’re going to work on the wall. After he’s gone, the monks gripe aloud that they’re manuscript illuminating monks, not wall building monks, dammit. Brendan defends his uncle, saying that the wall is the only thing that will protect them when the Vikings come to Kells. The monks reply that, if they can’t work on the books to preserve civilization for future generations, why are they even building the wall in the first place? This is a very important point to remember when watching this movie and indeed when discussing this whole era of history; knowledge was so, so fragile back then. If you owned a book, it might be one of only a dozen copies in the entire world. Everything had to be copied by hand, painstakingly at huge expense. Every piece of writing that was lost, or stolen or burned was gone irretrievably. There’s one little background gag in the scriptorium where Brother Leonardo knocks some ink on a page that another monk, Brother Sergei, is working on.
What makes this joke funnier (or less funny, if you’re the kind of person who empathises with the tribulations of cartoon characters) is the knowledge that if the monks made the slightest mistake, just one single solitary mistake, they had to tear the whole page out and start again (hey, it’s the Word of God, not like you can half-ass it). And it’s not like this was just an ordinary page of foolscap either.
“Oops. Left out a comma. Start again.”
In summary, being a monk sucked.
The monks say that if a master illuminator came to Kells they’d be able to do some real kick-ass illuminating. Brendan is curious, because he thought they were master illuminators but the monks say “Naw, sit down son.” and tell him the story of Saint Colm Cille gaaaaaaaaaaaah oh God not again.
See, I went to Scoil Mobhí, which was built on the site of Saint Mobhí’s monastery in Glasnevin. Mobhí was like the Splinter of Irish saints, he didn’t really do much himself but he trained lots of the really famous ones, most notably Colm Cille (Columba if you’re Scottish) who is like THE biggest deal in Irish Saintdom after Patrick and Brigit. Something that the nuns never missed an opportunity to remind us of. It was like “Did you know Mobhí taught Colm Cille?” Yes. Yes. I know, Sister. It’s kind of damaging to the old school spirit when your school’s patron’s only claim to fame is teaching a much more awesome guy. Every day in class we’d wonder wistfully about what it would be like to go to Scoil Colm Cille.
To be masters of our own destiny, in no one’s shadow. To be.
Sorry, lost my train of thought there. Anyway, they tell the story of the Book of Iona (retold in beautiful flash animation) which was begun by Colm Cille and continued by his successor Brother Aidan. Brendan falls asleep and dreams of the island of Iona coming under attack from Vikings and when he’s woken by the monks they tell him that he’d better get those plans to the Abbot before he goes abb-shit. Oh, fun little detail that will be incredibly distracting for you whenever you watch this movie from now on.
See those little lines of hair on Brendan’s fringe? One stroke, then four, then five? That’s actually Ogham, an ancient Irish writing form and it spells “B” “E” “N” which is the shortened name of Tomm Moore’s son, Brendan.
Brendan runs to Cellach’s tower to give him the plans and Cellach’s all “kid, you had one job.” Brendan Gleeson’s vocal performance in this movie is something to behold. This guy was a teacher in Dublin for years and all I can say is I would not have wanted to misbehave in his class. He’s got that kind of voice that’s worse when it’s quiet, you know what I mean? Like when he says “You have disappointed me.” it sounds like he’s about to add “For the last time.” Cellach is a fascinating character, even more so if you know his back story. He was once an illuminator himself, but had to break his vow of non-violence to save the infant Brendan when his brother and sister-in-law were killed by the Vikings. So he’s withdrew into the monastery and built the walls around them higher, and higher and higher.
Looking down from the tower, Brendan sees that a visitor has arrived at Kells. This is Brother Aidan, and look at the first thing we see when he’s introduced.
That, in case you don’t know, is a Celtic Cross. You may have seen it in graveyards but the significance of the circle within the cross is that it’s the symbol of Lugh, the Celtic god of the sun. Legend has it that Saint Patrick designed the cross. Which, yeah, legend has it that Saint Patrick did a lot of things but it would fit with what we know about his ministry. Patrick was an absolute genius at adapting the native Irish culture into a new form of Christianity. Instead of simply steamrolling over the existing Irish belief system he worked to incorporate as many of its extant traditions and festivals into the Christian faith, in an effort to minimise culture clash. The celtic cross over Aidan symbolises that this is the tradition of Christianity that does not hide behind walls in fear of what is outside, but embraces it, learns from it, and enriches itself from it.
So Aidan is played by Mick Lalley, Ireland’s beloved grand-dad, and he arrives at Kells with his white cat Pangur Bán (medieval Irish poetry reference
! All the medieval Irish poetry fans in the house let me hear ya!). The other monks treat Aidan like a rock star and even Cellach welcomes him warmly. Aidan wants to see the scriptorum but Cellach insists on showing him the wall.
“It’s gonna be the most beautiful wall you ever saw. And it’s gonna have CELLACH in big gold letters. It’s gonna be YUGE!”
Aidan asks Brendan to feed Pangur. Pangur runs off and Brendan chases after him, overhearing an argument between Cellach and Aidan. Cellach is worried that that the Vikings followed Aidan and that they’ll reach Kells before the wall is finished. Aidan is more concerened with the Book of Iona, but Cellach tells Aidan that the wall is protect all of civilization, and that “through the strength of our walls they will see the strength of our faith.” If the Celtic Cross is Aidan’s symbol, the wall is Cellach’s. For Aidan, faith is a quest for knowledge and understanding, but for Cellach it is a fortification, something to take strength from, but also to retreat behind and with which to close off the outside world. But here’s the thing, neither man is wholly right or wrong. While Aidan might be the more appealing character, you can hardly blame Cellach for building his wall higher and higher. The monsters he’s so afraid of aren’t in his head, there really are Vikings out there and they are murderers and rapists (and some, I assume, are good people).
Later that night, Brendan sneaks into the scriptorium to catch a glimpse of the Book of Iona. Aidan offers to let him look at it but Brendan is nervous, saying that he’s heard that sinners are struck blind if they look at it so maybe he’d better pass. Aida obliquely tells him “There’s nothing in this life but mist” and tells him that it’s his decision. Brendan looks at the book and is entranced by what he sees. Very wisely, the movie doesn’t actually show us, the audience, what’s in the book. Instead, we watch Brendan from a distance as he stares at it and whispers “The work of angels…”
Aidan is very flattered, and asks Brendan if he wants to see the most beautiful page in the whole book. Brendan says yes and Aidan shows him the Chi-Ro page…which is still blank because he hasn’t actually started working on it. Aidan asks Brendan if he wants to help him create it and Brendan of course says yes. Aidan tells him that he needs green oak berries to make a special kind of dye. Brendan says that he can’t leave the Abbey but later that night he has a change of heart and decides to go into the woods alone and get the berries himself. At dawn, Brendan and Pangur head into the forest.
“Now don’t tell me you’re going in there? It’s swarming with wolves!”
It is, in fact, swarming with wolves and Brendan and Pangur soon find themselves surrounded by the blackest, pointiest wolves you ever did see. Suddenly a white wolf approaches and the other wolves vanish in what is, no lie, one of my all time favourite pieces of animation.
Also, if you have the US DVD of this movie and have watched it with the subtitles on you’ve probably been confused by this next part. The white wolf approaches Brendan who clasps his hands together and says (according to the subtitles) “Oh no, it’s hard enough.” What he’s actually saying is “Ár nAthair atá ar neamh…” which is “Our Father, who art in heaven…” in Irish. Funny little bit of trivia: “Athair” is the Irish word for “father”, but you put the lower case “n” in front of it when saying “Ár nAthair” because…well…”Ár Athair” is really tricky to say. But the Irish word for “snake” is “Nathair”, meaning that whether you make the “N” or the “A” lower case is the only thing standing between you and some pretty hardcore blasphemy. Anyway, Brendan opens his eyes to find the wolf gone and instead sees a little girl with white hair and the eyebrows of Groucho Marx.
Aisling accuses Brendan of trespassing into her forest to steal food for his family, which is kind of like finding that someone has broken into your house and yelling “You! You’re looking for stuff to sell to buy life-saving medicine for your child! Aren’t you!? Aren’t you?! Hmmmmm?!” Brendan says that he has no family (ouch, poor Cellach. I mean, the guy only saved his life and gave up his hopes and dreams to keep him safe) and this touches a chord with Aisling. She agrees to help him find the berries he needs and takes him on the magical tour of wonderment. As he marvels at the beauty of Aisling’s forest, Brendan feels a strange presence calling to him. He wanders off and finds himself in a dark, forbidding clearing surrounded by stone idols. And he is watched by a strange, glowing eye…
He sees a dark cave and starts walking towards it but Aisling appears and tells him that they need to get out of there like NOW. She says it is “a place of suffering” and that Crom Cruach dwells within the cave. Brendan then dismisses this in absolutely the most patronising and idiotic way possible, saying that is just a children’s tale.
“Like fairies. Like you! You’re not real, are you? Well there you go.”
So Crom Cruach was supposedly a pre-Christian God worshipped in Cavan. I say “supposedly” because the only existing sources are by Christian writers many years after the fact. Not suspicious in and of itself of course, because pre-Christian Ireland was almost totally illiterate and kept no written records. Supposedly however, he was a very nasty piece of work whose followers practiced infant sacrifice until Saint Patrick came along and smashed Crom’s idol with a big damn hammer because the dude was all about respecting people’s beliefs and all but JESUS. There’s no way to know if the story is true or whether Crom was just a bogey man cooked up by the monks but I tend to think it’s at least partially true. One story has a load of Crom’s followers throwing a party, getting drunk and massacring each other and that’s just so “us”. Anyway, Brendan loudly states that there’s no such thing as Crom Cruach. He says this. While standing in Crom Cruach’s fairy ring.
Sure enough, a hideous shadow emerges from the cave and tries to drag Brendan into it but Aisling saves him by pushing a statue over the entrance and almost dying in the process. Brendan asks her what that was and she’s all “Remember that ancient powerful god that doesn’t it exist? Well, you’re an idiot.”
Brendan goes back to the Abbey and Cellach tells him that he can never leave the Abbey again or its fifty million Hail Maries and an Act of Contrition. Brendan shows Aidan the berries and they make the ink and Aidan starts training Brendan to be an illuminator. Aidan tells Brendan that he’s now to old to finish the Chi-Ro page and that Brendan will have to take up the mantle, but Brendan refuses, saying he’d only ruin it. Cellach calls Brendan away and Aidan tells Pangur that Brendan has the potential to be a fantastic illuminator but that there’s someting holding him back. And Pangur says “Meow” because he’s a cat and Aidan is nuts.
Meanwhile, the Vikings arrive in Ireland and start wrecking heavily stylised carnage in their wake. Refugees start arriving in Kells and Cellach realises that it’s only a matter of time before the Norsemen arrive.
Brendan divides his days between helping Cellach build the wall, helping Aidan with the book and playing with Aisling in the forest. Then one night Aidan discovers that he’s lost the one thing that he needs to complete Brendan’s training, a crystal called “The Eye of Colm Cille.” that basically worked like a magnifying glass and allowed him to draw exquisitely detailed images. Aidan tells Brendan that the eye once had an older name, The Eye of Crom Cruach, and that Colm Cille took it from a powerful demon. So, to re-iterate, Colm Cille ripped out a demon god’s frickin’ eye and used it to create holy manuscripts.
Irish saints. Metal as FUCK.
Brendan decides to go into the forest and get another eye from Crom Cruach…
Sweetie, tell him…
“Let him go. We can’t save this one.”
But he’s stopped by Cellach who quite rightly locks him in the basement until he sees sense. Pangur runs into the forest to find Aisling.
“Ya got balls, cat. I like that.”
Aisling finds Brendan and asks him how she can get him out. He tells her that the key is at the top of Cellach’s tower and she takes Pangur and sits on a window. And then, sweet mercy, this happens.
Okay um…onions. Shut up.
Jesus. Give me a second.
Okay. So. A couple of points. What Aisling is singing is not actually the poem “Pangur Bán” but an original composition for the movie. The original poem is about a monk battling writer’s block while watching his cat, Pangue Bán (“he hunts mice while I hunt words”). What Aisling is singing is “Níl sa saol seo ach ceo/Is ní bheidh muid beo/Ach seal beag gearr” (I am probably screwing up the spelling something awful, I’ve always been more fluent speaking than writing). Anyway, it means “There is nothing in this life but mist/And we will only live/For a little while.”
Although honestly, the music is so evocative and Christen Mooney’s singing voice is so gorgeous she could be reciting the different tenses of the verb “to be” and it would probably move me to tears. Besides, it’s Irish. Anything you sing in it sounds epic. Listen to this:
They may sound like they’re singing about the last desperate alliance between men and elves. They’re singing about seaweed.
Anyway, Aisling transforms Pangur into a spirit cat and he takes the key from Cellach’s room.
Brendan is freed and goes into the forest to get Crom Cruach’s eye because this kid just does not learn. Aisling reluctantly agrees to help him and lifts the huge fifty ton stone statue over her head like it’s paper and my people supposedly defeated her people and drove them under ground and I suppose my question is HOW? HOW DID WE DO THAT? Anyway, Crom’s shadowy tendrils start leaching energy away from Aisling and she makes this face.
Ah. There’s that new-timey Cartoon Saloon terror.
She tells him to turn the darkness into light and Brendan is sucked into the other world where he finally sees the true form of Crom Cruach.
Brendan battles the serpent and manages to defeat him with a stick of chalk, which allows him to create solid walls that trap Crom. So here, Brendan, a monk, is using a writing implement to defeat a pagan god, who, interestingly enough, takes the form of a giant snake. Snakes of course were supposedly driven from Ireland by Saint Patrick and so act as a symbol of the older pre-Christian belief symbols that succumbed to the written word of the Christian faith. So by defeating Crom with chalk, Brendan is fuck it you know where I’m going with this. Now blinded, Crom starts devouring his own tail (the Book of Kells is full of images of snakes eating themselves as a symbol of eternity). So Brendan just yanks Crom’s eye right out of his socket (Irish monks. Metal as fuck) and returns to the real world.
He wakes up in the tomb where a single shaft of sunlight falls on him. This is a visual reference to Newgrange, an ancient Irish tomb that predates the pyramids that’s designed so that every year on the winter solstice (and only on the winter solstice) sunlight illuminates the inner chamber.
Brendan returns to Kells and shows Aidan the eye that he ripped from the socket of a giant snake god and Aidan’s all “Damn son” and they start work on the book. The other monks catch wind of this and leave work on the wall to admire Brendan’s handiwork. The Abbot arrives and furiously tells them that they have one day before the Vikings attack Kells and locks Aidan and Brendan in the scriptorium. The Vikings attack and Cellach takes an arrow to the shoulder.
“Loser Vikings shot me in the shoulder! Bad!”
So. Our heroes find away to turn the tide of battle and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?
No. This is an Irish story. They lose, and almost everyone dies. The Vikings overrun the abbey, burn it to the ground and slaughter everyone they find. Only Aidan, Brendan and Pangur are able to escape with the book. They get captured by the Vikings who take the book from them but are only interested in the bejewelled bookcase, and tear out the illuminated vellum pages. Just as the Vikings are about to slaughter Brendan and Aidan, a pack of wolves emerge from the forest nom nom nom nom and then vanish back home to pick the Viking out of their teeth. Aidan and Brendan pick up the tossed pages. One blows away and as Brendan runs to catch it he meets someone who has come to say goodbye.
Back at Kells, Tang is still alive because he hid in the tower and the Vikings couldn’t find no Tang round here. Tang comes across the wounded but still living Abbot and nurses him back to health.
Now a grown man, Brendan returns to the forest and sees the white wolf again. The wolf leads him back to Kells where Brendan is shocked to find Cellach alive and living in the tower. Cellach has been consumed with grief and guilt over what happened to Brendan. Brendan and his uncle are reunited and Cellach tells him how bitterly he regrets preventing Aidan from finishing the book. Brendan says with a smile that “Aidan never did pay you much mind” and shows Cellach the completed book that he and Aidan worked through the years to finish. “The Book of Iona?” Cellach asks. “The Book of Kells”, Brendan replies.
And I looked at a fully animated depiction of the Chi Ro page and asked myself how it was even possible.
The Book of Kells is the greatest piece of art ever produced in Ireland. In the Secret of Kells, it has a depiction worthy of that legacy. An incredible, unbelievably beautiful movie.
Beautiful, deceptively simple, magnificently detailed, utterly unique.
Main Characters: 17/20
Brendan and Aisling make for a very appealing double act.
Crom and the Vikings are really characters so much as dark, animalistic, primal forces. Nuanced? No. But menacing as all get out.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
This is a world overflowing with uniquely designed, visually striking (sometimes unfortunately so) characters.
Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kíla give a beautiful, moody score dripping in atmosphere.
FINAL SCORE: 86%
NEXT UPDATE: 17 March 2016
NEXT TIME: What do they got, a lot of sand? We got a hot crustacean band! Each little clam here, know how to jam here, under the sea.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday
. Original artwork for this blog was commissioned from the oh-so talented Julie Android
, whose artwork is now available for purchase on T-Shirts, mugs, hoodies and more at the Unshaved Mouse online store. Check it out!