Saturday, March 27, 2010

Searching for Light in the Darkness of Insanity: a review of the Secret of Kells

Bitter is the wind tonight.
It tosses the ocean's white hair.
Tonight I fear not the coming over on the Irish Sea.
of fierce warriors of Norway

--9th c. Irish poem

So no doubt if you noticed this film was nominated for an Academy Award, facing off against Pixar's Up, as well as Coraline, and Wes Anderson's The Fantasic Mr. Fox, you probably said to yourself, "what the hell is The Secret of Kells?" Which is a shame, because you've missed out on one of the best movies of the year.

It's become a cliche to talk about how the Irish saved civilization--not that they did it alone, of course, but that the Irish monks helped keep literacy alive in the West is without doubt. They also, in the process, created one of the most beautiful books ever made--the famous Book of Kells.

The Secret of Kells is the story of that book... sort of. We don't know who actually created the Book of Kells, whether it was started by St. Columbcille on Iona, or whether it was the product of the Abbey of Kells, or whether it was started on Iona and finished at Kells, or even which artists put their hands to it. And so Kells puts its creation in its proper context, during the tumultuous period when Vikings attacked Britain and Ireland, sacking abbeys, burning books, looting gold, and scattering the literate communities to the winds. In this world we find Brendan, an orphan raised by his uncle Cellach, the abbot of Kells, who is understandably obsessed with fortifying the abbey in the face of the Viking raids. But with this determination comes a stultifying existence for Brendan, only alleviated when the illuminator Aidan comes, having escaped the destruction of Iona.

Aidan is an artist--for him the creative practice is a way to give hope in dark times. For when life is only struggle, when it's only about building walls out of fear of the inevitable, the very enjoyment of existence is extinguished. For Aidan, everything about life hold beauty and wisdom--not just what can be found in books or in the abbey, but the natural world, as well, like the best of those Celtic monks. So Aidan encourages Brendan's interest in the art of illuminating manuscripts, while Cellach only wants Brendan to focus on building up the walls of the abbey. Brendan naturally rebels against Cellach, and leaves the abbey for the first time. He heads for the forests, looking for plants to make the ink used in the manuscript.

Here he meets Aisling, a faery girl, one of the sĂ­dhe, who saves him and the cat Pangur Ban (!) from a pack of wolves. Like Aidan, she teaches Brendan not to fear the natural world, to enjoy it and and learn from it.

But the Vikings are a real threat, and the abbey is vulnerable, despite Cellach's best efforts. And Vikings aren't the only danger--there is also Crom Cruach, the dark spirit who haunts the edges of the woods.

But the book is most important thing. Aidan is old, his hands shake, his eyes are dim. He wants Brendan to design the Chi-Rho page:

The actual Chi-Rho page from the Book of Kells

The Chi-Rho page is one of the most intricate pieces of art ever created; I have a large copy of it, measuring twelve inches by about fifteen, and I still can't imagine creating such tiny, interlacing details; the picture above doesn't do it justice.

So that's the beginning of the story of the film; but what you should really go for is the art. This is easily one of the most beautiful animated films I have ever seen. From what I've read, it's mostly done in the traditional, 2D, hand-drawn animation, which rather neatly imitates the look of a manuscript. It doesn't rely on gimmicks like 3D, or the plastic-looking CGI of Dreamworks and (forgive me) Pixar--like the best and earliest Disney features, it uses the ability of the human hand to create a lush and vibrant world, intricate in detail and never condescending to the audience. (And the details are stunning--see if you can spot the ogham in the forest).

This is a film about the power of art to bring light--illumination--in times of darkness. To bring joy, to fire the spirit, to help us communicate, to give us a reason to communicate. This is a film about finding joy in the face of destruction, to live in spite of death.

Also, for those of you who have some knowledge of Old Irish poetry, stick around through the credits--it's no mistake that the cat is named Pangur Ban.