That Irish charm school the movies have been conducting of late is still in session. The Secret of Roan Inish, an innocuous bit of Hibernian whimsy featuring a little girl's vivid imagination, a kindly fisherman/grandfather who likes to pass on the family myths and a boy who's mysteriously floated out to sea, lays the local enchantment on in great gobs. There's even a creature who's half woman, half seal.

The overall effect is no more cloying than that of Into the West (Irish boys set forth on magical horse), Hear My Song (exiled Irish tenor reclaims birthright) or The Field (flinty Irish farmer fights for disputed parcel of land). But isn't it about time somebody noticed that, in the past five years or so, moviemakers have reduced Ireland to a land of cute leprechauns and sweet fairy tales?

The big surprise with Roan Inish is that its Yankee perpetrator turns out to be John Sayles, a hardened realist who gave us the coal-miner drama Matewan, the Black Sox expose Eight Men Out and, most recently, Passion Fish. He claims he wanted to change gears with this misty piece of (here we go again) "magic realism." But it's hard to understand why. Sayles seems like a fish--or a seal--out of water in this realm. Kudos, however, go to cinematographer Haskell Wexler for his spectacular, moody views of Ireland's rugged northwest coast.

The rest of the film has a kind of plodding charm. As dreamy, curious Fiona, little Jeni Courtney is a doll, but like most other ten-year-olds, she needs acting lessons. On the other hand, Mick Lally plays the picturesque old storyteller to the tourist-trade limit, and Eileen Colgan is such a salt-of-the-earth Irish grandmother that she could retire the trophy. Adapted from Rosalie K. Fry's 1957 novella, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, Sayles's script slides from improbability to wish fulfillment to absurdity--as befits this spongy sort of fairy-telling.

The hearts-and-flowers set may love it, along with assorted six-year-olds, but the land that produced William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Frank O'Connor surely has some tales to tell aside from the Irish mush moviemakers near and far have been coming up with. As for Sayles, the sooner he puts down the wand and takes the hammer back up, the better off his career is bound to be.


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