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Review: The Secret of Kells

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A light in dark times


- All the magic of medieval art and an exploration of Irish legends are combined in this fantastical debut feature which stands as a symbol of European specificity

Review: The Secret of Kells

At first sight, nothing seems further removed from our contemporary world than ninth-century Ireland, which is the setting for the debut feature by Irish directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey: The Secret of Kells [+see also:
film focus
interview: Didier Brunner
interview: Tomm Moore
interview: Viviane Vanfleteren
film profile
. It’s a harsh place covered in wild forests scattered with occasional shelters for a population threatened by Viking invasions.

However, the film – which draws its inspiration from The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript that is considered a treasure of global artistic heritage and is on display in Dublin – skilfully links it to universal and timeless themes: the rite of passage to adulthood and the survival of art against the hostility of a materialistic environment. These two individual and collective issues merge in the 2D adventures combining heroic fantasy and historical realism and centred on four main characters who embody as many human values.

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At the centre of the film – written by Fabrice Ziolkowki – is 12-year-old Brendan, who lives in the Abbey of Kells under the iron rule of his uncle, Abbot Cellach, an authoritarian man whose sole concern is to construct a wall capable of keeping out the Barbarians. But the arrival of master illuminator Brother Aidan opens up new horizons for the obedient Brendan.

Firstly, the horizon of art, its beauties and creative powers open up to him, as Brother Aidan brings with him the as-yet unfinished Kells manuscript and encourages the young boy to take part in its composition. Then there is the horizon of the unknown, the outside world to which Brendan has until now been denied access, a world dominated by the forces of Nature and the irrational.

These forces are embodied by the wolf-girl Aisling, a forest spirit, and the terrifying Crom Cruach, who is hidden away in the depths of his cave and symbolises the Jungian fear that human beings must confront in order to be reborn. This terror has its real equivalent in the hordes of Vikings, armies of huge shadows that surge along to the sound of drums in a scene of bloody violence.

Skilfully developing two levels of interpretation, The Secret of Kells is an epic accessible to young audiences and a philosophical tale for adult viewers. The film is distinguished in particular by a medievalist graphics that touches on the sublime in the forest scenes. Playing fully on the colours and shapes in contrast with the greyness and banality of the abbey, the film enters a dreamlike dimension in which the magic of Celtic mythology and the stunning aesthetic quality of the Book of Kells (which is reminiscent of mandala art) combine for the greatest visual pleasure of viewers.

The Secret of Kells is a successful film that bears a strong message about the importance of artistic transmission and the creative awakening that transcend dark conflicts and security fears. The film is also the worthy representative of a European animation scene that resists graphic and narrative conformity and the tropes of 3D.

Part of a tradition that reflects the common ground uniting diverse European cultures, the film was made possible thanks to the combined efforts of Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, France’s Les Armateurs and France 2 Cinéma, Belgium’s Vivi Film, and Hungary’s Kecskemet (who collaborated on the production). The result of this European alliance has been selected in the Generation section of the Berlin International Film Festival, which is a fine showcase for its numerous financers, including the Irish Film Board, Eurimages, the MEDIA Programme, the French Community of Belgium, Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Wallimage, Promimage, the Belgian tax shelter fund, Canal + and Ciné Cinéma.

Sold internationally by Celluloid Dreams, The Secret of Kells will be released in France by Gebeka Films, in Belgium by Kinepolis and in Ireland by BVI.

(Translated from French)


original title: Brendan and the Secret of Kells
country: Ireland, France, Belgium
sales agent: Celluloid Dreams
year: 2008
directed by: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
screenplay: Tomm Moore, Fabrice Ziolkowski

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