The Secret Of Kells

The Secret Of Kells

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Brendan is a young monk and seemingly the only child resident of a monastery at the heart of an Irish forest. His uncle is the abbot and determined to build a large wall around their compound to keep out the marauding vikings who have been causing waves of people to seek sanctuary inside. Unsurprisingly, Brendan is less interested in building the wall than in hanging out with the gaggle of monks who are busy at work on illuminated manuscripts. During one of their story sessions, they tell him about Brother Aidan, a master of the manuscript, who is working on the most brilliant book of them all - The Book Of Iona.

This being an adventure film, of course, it isn't long before Aidan shows up - with his cat Pangur Ban (who, mercifully given the recent flurry of talking animated animal films, never speaks) - and soon Brendan finds himself learning the secrets of the ink and writing which will necessitate him going on a quest to the nearby forest, although it is strictly out of bounds.

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If that sounds like a heck of a lengthy set up - it is, and it feels that way as you're watching. There's a sprawling aspect to the narrative, which doesn't really find its focus until Brendan leaves the monastery confines. Also, as regards the Book Of Kells itself, children are unlikely to be much the wiser as to what it is - the Bible is never mentioned and there is never really any indication of what the book contains, except that it's all drawn very nicely. The message behind the film is also rather inscrutable, there are hints that following your heart not your head is the best option but any real sense of this is lost beneath the weight of the story.

The voice cast - which features Brendan Gleeson as the abbott and Mick Lally as Aidan - are all fine. The decision to give the role of Brendan and wood sprite Aisling to youngsters, Evan McGuire and Christen Mooney, rather than adults pretending to be kids, is also a good one, although Mooney is occasionally so whispery that it makes it difficult to decipher her Irish accent.

When it comes to distinctive and arresting animation, however, Tomm Moore and co-director Nora Twomey's debut is a visual feast. Using the illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Kells and a host of other Celtic imagery as its inspiration, the result is an intricate and delicate - mostly hand-drawn - look which, despite being confined to just two dimensions, pops right off the screen.

With its curving sweep, from Celtic knot snowflakes to interlocking pieces of landscape, the film has an organic feel that is pleasingly old-fashioned. In fact there is such a lot going on all of the time that it's hard to know where to look. In this regard, it is certainly likely to keep younger children entertained - although the vikings, when they finally show up, have a shadowy scariness that might be enough to induce nightmares in the very young.

Captivatingly creative but over-fussy in terms of story, this is still an entertaining and accomplished debut that certainly knows how to win over a crowd, as evidenced by its status as the 2009 Edinburgh Film Festival audience award winner.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2009
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A young monk goes on an adventure as he tries to help complete an illuminated manuscript.
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Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

Writer: Tomm Moore, Fabrice Ziolkowski

Starring: Evan McGuire, Mick Lally, Brendan Gleeson, Christen Mooney

Year: 2009

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Belgium, Ireland, France

Festivals:

BIFF 2009
EIFF 2009

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