Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2015

Song of the Sea

'Song' for the ages

Tomm Moore's one-of-a-kind 'Song of the Sea' is an immaculate distillation of storytelling

Song of the Sea
Director: Tomm Moore
Screenplay: Will Collins and Tomm Moore
Starring: The voices of David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, Lisa Hannigan, Jon Kenny and Lucy O'Connell
Rated PG / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

A lot of movies are explicitly about the nature of storytelling, either by direct inclusion (a story read or told during the film informs or reflects the body of the film itself), or structural purpose (a story within a story), or by fully taking on the form of an entirely different type of storytelling (a fable, a folktale). Tomm Moore's Song of the Sea, an extraordinary piece of Irish folklore steeped in the traditions that preceded it, belongs in the latter category, but it goes beyond that. It is storytelling incarnate - a pure, physical manifestation of it. We may be primarily focusing on one tale in particular, but each detail in every frame - every shape, every structure, every song, every eye or strand of hair - seems to have its own.

In fact, certain strands of hair quite literally contain stories. That hair belongs to The Great Seanachai (voiced by Jon Kenny), a legendary, magical storyteller (and fidgety eccentric) with an endlessy long, shimmering, ice-colored beard, every fiber of which holds one complete and unique story. And he's got millions of them. Billions.

The same truth could essentially apply to the movie as a whole, so evocative are its images. The geometrically designed compositions, the ornate patterns tattooing every shape and object, the faces and bodies that appear in rocks, mountains, skies ...

The recurring figures and motifs - even voices, with members of the cast voicing multiple roles - speaks to a shared connection between worlds, between the characters and the histories they inherit, between myth and reality. We're told the tragic tale of the sea god Mac Lir, whose hulking form now rests permanently fossilized in the middle of the ocean, head bowed to form a sharp cliff's edge. He is voiced by the great character actor Brendan Gleeson, who also voices the film's patriarch, Conor - a widower and father of two children, the precocious and cranky Ben (David Rawle) and the mute, mysterious Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell).

The reason for Saoirse's strange nature becomes clear early on, when she discovers - rather, she's instinctively drawn to - a mystical white coat that seems practically made for her. As she puts it on, she drifts out to the shore, joining a pod of seals in the middle of the sea before her brother and father find her and drag her back to the house. She doesn't exactly know it yet, but she is - like her mother before her - a Selkie, the part-human, part-seal creature of myth we've seen in the likes of Neil Jordan's Ondine and John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish.

Of course, Conor - still grief-stricken by the all-too-early departure of his wife, who died just as she gave birth to Saoirse - refuses to accept the reality of his daughter's identity, nor that of his wife. Ben is somewhat similarly afflicted; Saoirse is, at least at first, a nuisance to him. He'd much rather spend all day with his trusty dog, Cú.

As Saoirse's destiny gradually comes to the fore, Conor continues to resist, at one point finally sending his son and daughter away to the city to live with their strict grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan). Anything to keep his daughter away from the sea.

But of course, such exile does nothing to keep her from her apparent, and inevitable, destiny. Whether she knows it or not, she plays a central role in a longstanding existential fight, stemming from a curse that only she can unlock, with a song only she can sing. This leads Ben and Saoirse on an unexpected journey through town and country, over land and sea and eventually into the hands of the keeper of the curse herself, Macha the Owl-Witch - voiced, again, by Flanagan.

What comes into focus again and again is each character's role in the story of their (and others') lives - some stories of their own making, some of fate, some of supernatural or mythological origin - and the importance of those stories' relationships to the traditions from which they sprung and with which they are inextricably linked. As the journey marches forward and the film's scope expands, its ideas about forgiveness, acceptance and letting go begin to emerge, and each story - past and present, real and fabled - reconciles with every other.

Moore creates a piece of living folklore, with Conor, Saoirse, Ben and Granny all embroidered into his elaborate arrangement (the characters are often shaped to fit perfectly into their physical environments), along with the overlapping, translucent configurations (embodied with such vivid blues and greens), swirling and circular patterns and watercolor-like expressionism that he and his team of animators so memorably bring to life. Even in the film's static compositions, there's a profound sense of movement in every frame, as if every detail is coming to life at once. With the partial exception of his previous feature, the similarly Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells, no other movie has ever looked like this. Song of the Sea is at once an impassioned ode to Celtic folklore and an astonishing mythical creation of its own. Its power is inseparable from its handmade qualities, which takes what is already a colossally beautiful film and practically turns it into a living artifact.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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