One of the things that’s magical about Miyazaki’s strange fables is the fact that they are so rooted in Japanese myth and mindset, and so – for Westerners – offer an insight into an alien culture that’s endlessly fascinating. This 2010 Oscar-nominated cartoon from director Tomm Moore accomplishes a similar feat, nailing the peculiarities of Irish culture in a way that puts it alongside The Field and The Commitments on the short list of films that neither stereotype nor patronise the country.
The plot – concerning the creation of The Book Of Kells, the astonishing illuminated Bible that is a treasure of the nation and a masterpiece of medieval art – mixes Christianity and paganism in a way that might seem out of place anywhere but Ireland, where devout belief and fathomless superstition have always co-existed. Young Brendan (Evan McGuire), who leaves the safety of his monastery home to brave the wild woods in search of the berries and creatures needed to create ink for the Book, meets mischievous sprite Aisling (Christen Mooney) but also the more sinister ancient gods and the threat of Viking invaders after the monastery’s treasures.
Also typically of Ireland, much of the film’s conflict comes from within the community, with stern Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) clashing with the more free-wheeling Brother Aidan (Mick Lally). The former’s determined to focus on the abbey’s defences, while the latter keeps his focus on the art of illumination. And the art is astonishing – real snippets from the Book are shown, and its motifs and themes echo through the film in tiny details, especially in the scenes where Aisling introduces Brendan to the glories of the forest. In contrast, the Viking invaders are drawn in slashes of smoky black and blood red, quick touches of CG enhancing their sense of invasion, of otherness.
Brendan’s quest mixes absurd humour and adventure, naïve art and intricate detail, in a way that could seem haphazard or chaotic but which is rigorously thought out – even in the traumatic detail of a climactic Viking attack. The result is a story that will enchant children but also offer something fresh and exciting for adults, the closest thing we’ve seen to a European Miyazaki movie.
Unlike anything else you’ve seen, and very much worth seeking out, this is a unique and beautiful creation.
Reviewer: Helen O'Hara