Movie Review: The Secret of Kells (Ireland et al., 2009)

Any other year.

Any other year, and it could have easily won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. But at the 2010 Oscars, it was nominated with Up, Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Princess and the Frog. One of the best set of nominees since they added the category in 2001. Heck, even the animated short films that year were all awesome!*

Any other year, and it should have won. But when one of the other nominees (Up) was also nominated for Best Picture, what chance did it have?

And a foreign film, too!

Brendan (Evan McGuire) is a young boy working as an assistant in the scriptorium at the abbey of Kells. When Aidan (Mick Lally), a monk fleeing the depradations of raiding Vikings arrives bringing an unfinished book by a legendary artist, Brendan immediately wants to help. But Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), Brendan’s uncle, forbids him. Building up the defenses of Kells is far more important and urgent.

Sneaking into the forest to find spell components ink ingredients for Aidan, Brendan meets up with Aisling (Christen Mooney), a forest sprite. They fall in “like”, and she helps him get what he’s looking for – and survive the dangerous forest.

It’s kind of, sort of, a “coming of age” story that happens also to be a sort of fictionalized account of the creation of the Book of Kells. That work, Ireland’s national treasure, is a collection of the four Gospels and a few other supplementary documents. It is a masterpiece of the art of manuscript illumination.

Detail from the “Chi Rho” page in the Book of Kells

The movie never really gets into why the book is important (I doubt any moviegoer would care to sit still for an explanation of the importance of the Gospels); instead it’s a general plea for the value of art and learning – the things that make a civilization worth defending.

It’s worth noting that Abbot Cellach, while an opponent of Brendan, really isn’t the bad guy here. It is indeed important that the abbey’s defenses are ready to protect the entire community. And the abbot himself can be seen working on their construction, backing up his words with his actions.

There’s also a suggestion of how Christianity came to supplant the Celtic faith and beliefs. Once Brendan, with Aisling’s help, has recovered the item he needs (from a cave belonging to a Celtic serpent being) for Aidan to complete his work, Aisling pretty much fades away from the story. She doesn’t completely go away, but her work is done. The abbey manages to survive the Viking raid; the Book of Kells is completed; the wilderness is (almost) tamed. It’s not so much a replacement as a fusion, though. As Thomas Cahill says in How the Irish Saved Civilization, Christianity essentially adopted the best parts of the Celtic system, and ameliorated the worst.

Something else I’ve noted that I don’t think anyone else has picked up on. There are three characters in the movie that have white hair: Aidan, Aisling, and Aidan’s cat Pangur Bán (Pangur Bán” translates roughly as “white cat”). Aidan’s eyes are bright blue. Aisling, a supernatural being of the forest, has vivid green eyes. Pangur Bán, who seems to walk in both worlds, has one blue eye and one green….

The movie is visually stunning, drawing inspiration from illuminated manuscripts and stained glass windows. Even if the story is a bit weak in spots, it truly does celebrate the power and beauty of visual images.

*”Logorama” (the winner), “A Matter of Loaf and Death”, “French Roast”, “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, “The Lady and the Reaper

One thought on “Movie Review: The Secret of Kells (Ireland et al., 2009)

  1. Secret of Kells is indeed a great movie, we have it on DVD. The same outfit also made Song of the Sea, which not quite in the same class of Secret of Kells, but it is also quite good.



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