An unusual film to come from indie filmmaker John Sayles, The Secret of Roan Inish is completely out of keeping with the generally cynical tone of his other work. Sayles is the last person on Earth you’d expect to be making a “family film,” but that might be part of the reason this 1995 film works as well as it does.
Sayles was certainly no stranger to the fantastic. His directing credits include the very fantasticated Brother From Another Planet, while his writing credits encompass such things as Piranha and The Howling. The surprise lies in the whimsical nature of Roan Inish. What works is Sayles’ refusal to make the material “precious.” In other hands, the story of a little girl (Jeni Courtney) learning, exploring and reclaiming the family history — involving a race of mermaid-like were-seals called Selkies — would probably have been milked for maximum cuteness.
Sayles approaches it all in a matter-of-fact manner that’s both refreshing and perfectly in keeping with the story’s coastal Ireland setting, a world in which such things are not thought of as impossible. It results in a fantasy that isn’t played as fantasy, and it works remarkably well.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke