The Art of Illumination
Building fortifications against the darkness
by Molly Templeton
THE SECRET OF KELLS: Directed by Tomm Moore. Co-director, Nora Twomey. Screenplay by Fabrice Ziolkowski, based on an original story and visual development by Tomm Moore. Art director, Ross Stewart. Editor, Fabienne Alvarez-Giro. Music, Bruno Coulais and Kila. With the voices of Evan McGuire, Mick Lally, Christen Mooney and Brendan Gleeson. GKIDS, 2010. 75 minutes.
The Secret of Kells is a wonder from the first scenes, in which a boy named Brendan (Evan McGuire) chases a wily goose through the medieval abbey where he lives. Lively, tumbling and creative, the goose-chase is just a glimpse of what director Tomm Moore has up his sleeve in this mythic vision of Irish history. In short order, he introduces his stylized, blocky characters, shows off the gorgeous detail in his film’s magical animation and sums up the conflict between enthusiastic Brendan, who’s after the goose for quills for the scriptorium, and his guardian, Abbott Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), who is far more interested in how work is going on the high walls being built around the abbey.
The walls are meant to repel Viking invaders, who loom in black and red, their towering, horned shapes spreading fire and trailing a cloud of squawking black birds. The Viking threat consumes Cellach, who forbids Brendan to leave the abbey. It’s a relatively easy rule to follow until temptation arrives in the form of Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a monk famed for his illuminated manuscript, the Book of Iona. Aiden comes bearing the book, a sly white cat (Pangur Bán, named after a poem written by an acient Irish monk) and a request: He needs berries from the forest in order to make a particularly vivid green ink. And only a small boy can slip through the one glowing crack in the abbey’s wall.
In the forest, Brendan meets a fey girl-fairy-wolf-creature, Aisling (Christen Mooney). It’s her forest, she tells him before leading him on a merry romp through and over and around the woods, stopping to delight at beetles and branches. Aisling’s forest glows with possibility, with growth and change, its blooms and beings a vibrant contrast to the solid, steady gray stone of the abbey.
But Moore isn’t interested in a simple clash between nature and civilization, or even between the abbott’s fears and the possibilities symbolized by Aidan’s beautiful book. Kells is cagey about what’s actually in that book, which in reality contains the four Gospels and is a treasured artifact of Irish history. What it says is less important than what it is: art, with all its transformative powers. Kells can’t be taken too literally, or you’ll likely start to wonder exactly how one book is going to keep invading hordes at bay. The film reveals its true focus in the elaborate beauty of its animation, as Brendan and Aisling slide down the illustration on a page, or Brendan wrestles with a dark spirit tangled in the knots of a page’s border. The Secret of Kells has room for conflict — between boy and man, city and country, invader and invaded, knowledge and faith — but would rather focus on coexistence: the book needs the walls and the walls need the book; the Christian tome is completed with the help of pagan wood creatures. In enchanting detail, Moore and his animators have crafted a film that joyously reflects its subject, a handmade reminder of the painstaking work artists have always created — and a sweet, clever tale about the adventure that leads a boy to discover his talent.
The Secret of Kells opens Friday, June 4, at the Bijou.