The Secret of Kells

06/04/2012 20:49

Review of The Secret of Kells (2009), dir. Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey

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When hearing the title of the movie, The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey in 2009, one surely conjures up in one’s mind the image of the Book of Kells. It is truly this book, one of the greatest works of art ever made, which is the main focus of the movie. To fully comprehend the character of the book—just in case you happen not to know it—it is useful to read the following quotation taken from the documentary titled The Book of Kells—The Work of Angels?, directed by Murray Grigor in 2000, which brilliantly introduces us to its mysteries as follows:


Here you can look upon the face of the divine majesty drawn in a miraculous way. If you take the trouble to look very closely and penetrate with your eyes to the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies so delicate and subtle, so close together and well-knitted, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colourings that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the result of work not of men but of angels.


The animated movie The Secret of Kells provides us with an alternative story of the creation of the Book of Kells, probably the most famous of all the illuminated manuscripts. It takes us back to the 7th century to the Abbey of Kells, where a young orphan boy named Brendan lives with his uncle Abbott Cellach and other monks learning the craft of illuminating manuscripts. Brendan is a very inquisitive and imaginative child, all the time carrying a chalk in his pocket, to be ready to explain anything by drawing. His uncle—a very serious man—cares only about the construction of the wall and the safety of the people living in Kells. He resolutely forbids Brendan to go beyond the walls of the abbey. However, one day the legendary illuminator Brother Aiden arrives at the abbey bringing with him his book and his cat Pangur Bán. He was driven from his home island by the attacks of Viking hordes and now looks for safety in the Abbey of Kells. Brendan immediately becomes enchanted by Brother Aiden, who discovers the boy’s talent for drawing and gives him a task to finish the book. Under his influence, Brendan leaves the walls of the abbey for the first time in his life and experiences new adventures and discovers the beauties of the magical forest accompanied by his new friend Aisling, in fact a fairy spirit and a guardian of the forest.


Brendan’s adventures and the magical world surrounding him reveal us the real treasure of this animation, which surely lies in the presence of allusions to Celtic mythology. Throughout the story we see names like Aisling—standing for an Irish poetic genre—in Irish meaning ‘dream’ that faithfully resembles the fairy nature of the character carrying the name. Another reference to the Irish culture is hidden in the name of Aiden’s cat Pangur Bán, which represents an Old Irish poem written by an Irish monk about his cat Pangur Bán, whose name in English means ‘white fuller’. There is also a mention of Crom Cruach—the gigantic snake with a strong bloodlust—whom Brendan defeats in a secret cave. In reality, the name symbolizes a deity in pre-Christian Ireland that demanded human sacrifice, and so it perfectly fits its bearer. This way we could continue with many more examples referring to Ireland’s history and folklore, but I presume that this glance into the movie is sufficient to make us see how important one’s culture actually is.


Apart from the beautiful message, The Secret of Kells also comprises the finest quality as far as both auditory and visual properties are concerned. We could undoubtedly describe it as an audiovisual jewel. Its hand-drawn animation playing with ornaments, colours and minimalist geometrical shapes—which remind us of miniature clock apparatuses—is simply dazzling. The kaleidoscopic landscape of images is constantly shifting with its little circles and polygons whirling around. Probably the most impressive moment is the revelation of Aisling’s forest with its never-ending rows of trees, sun rays penetrating their dense foliage, floating mists and the air full of different scents and mystical sounds of animals. This magical atmosphere is even more emphasized by amazing Irish music composed by Bruno Coulais.


However, the elaborateness and richness of detail may sometimes result in confusion and visual challenge. Therefore, people who are not very fond of surreal art may sometimes find themselves submersing in the backgrounds. And so, to enjoy the animation fully, it is simply necessary to get used to its style and learn how to orientate oneself in it.


To conclude, I surely recommend this wonderful movie to everyone. In spite of the fact that The Secret of Kells is an animation, it is not meant to be watched only by children. What is more, it contains many beautiful messages to light up our gloomy minds. One of its memorable scenes is when Brendan can see the book for the first time and cries, “The work of angels!” But Brother Aidan just shakes his head and says, “It is the work of mere mortals, like you and me.” And truly, Brendan, after all, becomes one of those participating in the creation of that angelic manuscript.


Anna Ďurišíková


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