John Sayles beautiful fairy story is one of the most picturesque and fascinating pieces to come out of the independent film world. Shot on location in the islands and coasts of western Ireland, the film concerns the granddaughter of a fishing family sent to live with her grandparents after her mother dies. In the village that has become her family’s home, since they left their island years ago, the girl hears strange stories, meets mysterious, dark-eyed relatives, and slowly discovers the connection between legend, family history, and the curiously abandoned island of Roan Inish.
The great strength of Sayles’ film is the combination of the child’s perspective and the adults’ experience. Haskell Wexler’s camera work makes clear from the very first shots the fact that this is the child Fiona’s story, or the story as Fiona experiences it. We see adults from the waist down as she would; the picture is obscured when she is in the fog; the scenery is novel and wondrous through her eyes. Even flashbacks (used to illustrate the stories people tell Fiona) have more of an enchanted feel than historical—as though we were seeing Fiona’s imaginative re-creation of the story. One of the results is that when an element of the magical or mystical is introduced, we cynical adult audience members suspect the protagonist: she is both the only one who sees it, and is a young, imaginative child in whose unfettered mind anything is possible (but we know better!). Sayles sets us up for one of two eventualities: either the sensible adults are right and Fiona is imagining visions of knowing seals and gulls, and a mysterious nymph-like child tripping through the waves; or Fiona is right, and the sensible adults are simply unable to see. Either way, the children and adults are divided, and the magic is more or less relegated to the juvenile.
The reconciliation of these two ideas is the surprise. In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert points out that children’s “imaginations can take in larger truths and bigger ideas.” When Fiona’s grandparents finally see what she sees, the mythology is not explained away, but made vital and amazing. The end of the film is the confirmation that the wondrous is real, that it belongs both in the child’s and the adults’ world—or, more appropriately, that there is only one world.