My weekend was pretty much devoted to movies with "Secret" in their titles. The day after I took in The Secret In Their Eyes, I caught the last local showing of The Secret of Kells (2009, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey), an animated Irish movie that spins a fairy tale out of the creation of the Book of Kells. Like The Secret In Their Eyes, The Secret of Kells was a suprise at the Oscars--in this case, by just being nominated; it lost to Pixar's Up. No shame in that, I guess.
As one might expect of a movie about the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world, it's a feat of pure design. The animation--done largely in Flash, if I read the credits right--is interestingly limited, in so far as it designs its characters with simple but telling shapes while indulging in flights of fancy with every other element. It's an approach that Jay Ward or Faith and John Hubley might have pursued had they the resources, or maybe later animators like Gennedy Tartakovsky or Craig McKracken. Computers have made it easier, I guess. Surprisingly, this isn't all done for show. There is a deep thematic preocupation with drawing in this movie. More on that in a bit.
This is a marvelously syncretic movie, which has an ostensibly Christian narrative--the real Book of Kells relates the Gospells, after all--but which is drunk on Irish myth in spite of that. The story is set in the monastery of Kells, around which, Abbot Abbot Cellach (voice of Brendan Gleeson) is building a wall against the rage of the northmen. The vikings are depicted in this film as demonic black shapes with horns and glowing eyes, which I'm sure wasn't far off the popular image of the time. Meanwhile, work in the scriptorium has been enlivened by the arrival of Brother Aidan of Iona, bearing the unfinished Book of Iona, which fires the imagination of young Brendan, the abbot's young nephew. In defiance of his uncle's wishes, he covertly learns the art of illumination himself, an apprenticeship that takes him outside the walls of the monastery for the first time and into the pre-Christian world of fairies and monster. In the woods, he encounters, Aisling, a sprightly girl who claims ownership of the woods, and he strays into the cave of the terrible Crom Crúaich, one of the old gods of Ireland. All the while, the threat of the vikings hovers overhead.
As an archetypal landscape, this movie is pretty traditional. Brendan is tutored by a wise mystic, must quest into the underworld, and emerges victorious. Typical hero's journey stuff. In its representation, it's pretty fanciful. The woods in this movie are vividly rendered in curliqueues and intense greens, while Crom Crúaich himself is depicted as a kind of designed snake. This itself is an interesting choice, because Crom Crúaich is the god whose cult was destroyed by St. Patrick; the movie is conflating this story with St. Patrick's banishing of the snakes from Ireland. How Brendan ultimately defeats Crom Crúaich is key to the movie: he draws a boundary around him and traps him. The Secret of Kells isn't only obsessed with drawing as it relates to the creation of the book, as you can see in relation to this sequence. It venerates drawings high and low, from Brendan's chalk drawings on a piece of slate, to the architectural drawings that cover the walls of the abbot's chamber. Drawing, the movie insinuates, is a holy pursuit. It's appropriate that this is conveyed in animation, an art that is still inextricably bound up with drawing, even in this era of computer generated wonders.