Given that filmmakers have so often focused on the controversies that have plagued contemporary Irish history, it’s easy to forget that it is also a land rich in heritage. Thankfully illustrator Tomm Moore has not forgotten, and having offered a low-key lesson on the country’s religious antiquity in his luminous debut The Secret Of Kells, the director has now turned his attention towards its fables for his fantastic follow-up, Song Of The Sea.
Told through an incandescent canvas of colours, this spellbinding if sauntering story of myth and magic centres on the Irish and Orcadian folklores of Selkies. Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) is one such being; she’s a little girl who has the ability to turn in to a seal. When her resentful older brother Ben (David Rawle) discovers his sister’s preternatural powers, the pair leaves the safety of their father (Brendan Gleeson) & grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) behind, and head off on an adventure to save the spirit world from the Celtic goddess Macha (Fionnula Flanagan, again).
Like Kells, Moore uses an array of kaleidoscopic shades and geometric shapes to instil his film with complexity and character. The animation is infused, as it is in the work of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, with real soul. Each frame is like a painting, bathed with a blissful beauty that’s beguiling to behold.
It isn’t just in the visuals that Moore shares similarities with Miyazaki; there are also thematic parallels. As with Spirited Away, Song Of The Sea is anchored by an emotive undercurrent that’s rooted within the story. Against the backdrop of stunning scenery, Will Collins’ wonderful script articulates a profound parable about loss. Early on we see Saoirse & Ben’s mother Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) vanish without a trace, and the silhouette of sadness left by her disappearance envelops the film like a fog of despondency.
Accentuated through the organic vocal acting of Brendan Gleeson et al, the emotion felt is intensely affecting. Moore textualises these moments himself with colour. He expertly expresses sadness with melancholic blues and dreary greys, which give way to gleaming greens and bright yellows as Ben & Saoirse journey away from the real world and in to the fairytale one.
Moore and Collins are careful to balance the film’s pathos with gentle humour, much of which comes from the family’s adorable dog Cú, and breathtaking spectacle. Wit and wonder is what truly lies at the heart of Song Of The Sea. The fantasy world we are immersed within is one teeming with imagination. Along the way, many figures from Irish mythology are introduced; the most memorable of which is the Great Seanachai (vibrantly voiced by Jon Kenny), a wise old fairy whose memories are held in the strands of his hair.
If The Secret Of Kells was Moore’s ode to Ireland’s colourful history, then that makes Song of the Sea his psalm to its Celtic culture; bewitching and brooding, it’ll melt your heart, but then break what’s left of it.
Director: Tomm Moore
Writers: Will Collins (as William Collins) , Tomm Moore (story)
Stars: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan
Runtime: 93 mins
Country: Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, France
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