Sunday, October 04, 2009


Brendan And The Secret Of Kells - Melbourne International Film Festival August 2009


Though a cheerful atheist I still have great artistic respect for the magnificently illustrated Book Of Kells. For me, the twelve hundred year old manuscript is enhanced well beyond its religious origins by the exceptional richness of its illuminations and calligraphy.

One of Ireland’s key national treasures the book is now kept at Dublin’s Trinity College. The circumstances that resulted in the survival of this artistic jewel are obscure, especially since Kells Abbey, where the book was kept and perhaps worked upon, was sacked by Viking raiders in the 10th Century.

Fiction takes root in the cracks of history, which is where director Tomm Moore and his Cartoon Saloon studio plant this perfectly rendered animated feature that sheds its own civilised illumination upon the preservation of the book, taking inspiration from it for the stylised design of the characters and backgrounds.

In a 9th century Abbey, 12 year old novice Monk Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is entranced by the beauty of the book, carried to Kells by a refugee artist-Brother from another sanctuary already fallen to the sea reivers. Brendan is torn between his desire to work on the unfinished book and his duty to his uncle, Abbot Cellach, who is understandably focused on the Viking threat. Brendan is aided in his quest to keep the light of art shining in the darkness by Master Artist Aiden and his cat, which has a pretentious name and attitude to match, as well as a Puckish forest spirit that can manifest as a white wolf. That last sounds a bit curious in context but this film is inclusive in its acceptance of alternative religious fantasies. It reminds me of some of the more liberal modern Arthurian novels where Christians and ‘Pagans’ coexist in relative, if unlikely, harmony where normally they get on like heretics on fire. Spiritual companionship is not extended to the invaders, who are depicted as looming, brutish monsters, reminding me of similar beasties seen in Genndy Tartakovsky’s classic animated series, Samurai Jack. (Not surprising, if you’ve seen any of Cartoon Saloon’s own children’s TV show, Skunk-Fu.) The Jack comparison can be further worked, as the book’s own illuminations are the inspiration for a serpentine Demonic Dark Power, reminiscent of Jack’s nemesis Aku, cleverly brought to life here as animated Celtic ‘knotwork’ and border designs.

The pitch perfect vocal cast includes Brendan Gleeson, whom genre buffs know as the cab driving survivor in 28 Days Later and also as Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody in Harry Potter.

We’re used to the wonders produced by Studio Ghibli and its kin but it’s cool to discover a new source of high grade storytelling where form and content are so masterfully blended. The beautiful Brendan & The Secret Of The Kells is one of the most illuminating features at the Festival.

Rob Jan
Zero-G: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Historical Radio 3RRR FM Melbourne, Australia. 1-2pm Mondays Australian Eastern Standard Time

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