Last weekend, we watched the animated film, Song of the Sea, by the same director (Tomm Moore) as The Secret of Kells, which I so enjoyed a few years ago. I wasn’t disappointed: this is a gorgeous, joyful, haunting film. It has the same richly layered and beautifully coloured imagery, which is inspired — like The Secret of Kells — by Celtic art, and explores Irish folklore.
The story concerns a young boy, Ben, whose mother (Brónach) disappeared suddenly the night Ben’s little sister, Saoirse, was born. It quickly becomes clear that Brónach was a Selkie — a seal woman who can choose to cast off her sealskin and live on land as a human. The mains story picks up six years to the day of Brónach’s disappearance, as the still-mute Saoirse is celebrating her birthday. Ben misses his mother and is resentful about having to watch out for his sister, while Conor is still submerged in grief and barely registers anything else. On this day, Saoirse discovers her mother’s sealskin in a wooden chest, and joins the seals briefly before washing back up on the shore, exhausted. When her grandmother finds her, she takes the children away to the city to stay with her, and so their quest to get back home begins. This really just scratches the surface, because all the way through the film, the lives of the main protagonists are bound up with characters from myth and folklore, and visual clues and motifs in the artwork prompt you gently to see the parallels.
I’ve always loved the myths about Selkies, partly because I’ve always felt a magnetic draw towards the sea (and water generally), and so the idea of having a secret life as a seal woman has always appealed me enormously. The myth is a widespread one around Ireland and Scotland, and varies a bit from place to place. There are male Selkies who are generally depicted as handsome seducers, who take off their sealskins to ‘hunt’ for dissatisfied women on land, before slipping back to the sea and leaving their human lovers in the lurch. Selkie women often settle down with human men, but in many of the stories, their husbands cruelly hide their sealskins, so they cannot return to the sea, and pine for their lost lives. You can read within the myths a message about identity and autonomy within relationships, but at another level, they are stories prompted by the fact that seals are mysterious, curious, and have haunting calls that sound a bit like human song.
The story, vocal acting, the sounds (music and ambient natural sounds), and most of all the incredible artwork all combine to make this a beautiful experience, full of layers of meaning. Mr. Bsag described it as ‘enchanting’, and it is, in the original sense of enchantment. It wraps you up in its spell and surrounds you with a different world. In The Secret of Kells, there was a moment towards the end of the film when the emotional culmination of the film was matched by stunning visual effects, and this film had a similar moment. I found it quite overwhelming and couldn’t help shedding a tear or two. It wasn’t a sad moment, it was just so beautiful and brimming over with joy and rich colours that I couldn’t hold the emotions back. If you see the film, you’ll realise this is one of the key messages of the film: don’t try to keep your emotions bottled up! I’ve been thinking about it since, and have realised that I am really affected and moved by colours, in a similar way that I am moved by music. Putting the two together so effectively (as they were in this film) causes a rather delightful emotional overload for me.
I should say that we chose to watch the Gaelic version of the film, subtitled in English, and I would recommend you do the same. As far as I can tell, all the voice actors were the same, but even if you don’t speak Gaelic (which we don’t) there’s an added musicality to the dialogue in Gaelic which adds to the effect. Some of the subtitles are a bit odd and unnecessary (you get a few stage directions, for example) and some of the visuals feature English anyway (writing on maps, and so on), but it’s still worth it.
This is one of those films that I can’t wait to watch again, just to pick up on all the subtleties I missed the first time.