Film Review: Song of the Sea
Tomm Moore is an Irish director who makes small, independent animations that somehow end up with Oscar nominations. His first film, The Secret of Kells is a masterpiece about writing The Book of Kells, a beautifully illustrated Bible. It combines medieval Christian imagery with traditional Irish mythology. His second film, Song of the Sea, focusses far more on the latter as it tells the story of faeries, giants and selkies (people who turn into seals). Once again, he’s made a film unlike anything else that plays in cinemas, a children’s film that deftly communicates weighty themes with the lightest of touches. It’s probably the best film that’s been in cinemas so far this year.
Young Ben is just a child when his pregnant mother disappears, leaving behind a little girl, Saoirse. The two of them live with their father and a dog in an island lighthouse, where Saoirse (pronounced serr-shuh) is repeatedly drawn into the water by a mysterious calling. It turns out she is a selkie, and may have the answer to stopping Macha, a villainous owl, turning magical creatures into stone. It all goes wrong, however, when their interfering granny moves the children into the city and away from the sea.
The first thing you’ll notice about Song of the Sea is just how beautiful it looks. Dispel in your mind the idea that animation is about making something photo-realistic or slick, the kind you might see in a Pixar film. This is highly stylised, hand-drawn animation, where every frame is carefully thought out and intricately painted. Moore isn’t that interested in showing literal renditions of life, but capturing a feeling through the symmetry or shapes of the image. Sometimes the imagery is abstract, such as a trip underwater that looks like a modernist painting; at other times it looks like an old Celtic knot, where lines are woven together to create frames within frames.
It’s not, however, an exercise in pure but empty aesthetics. While it never looks less than gorgeous, the look of the film only ever serves to compliment what’s happening within the film. For instance, a moment of family intimacy is shown through a series of spinning, concentric circles. Like this year’s other animated wonder, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea uses its traditional techniques to show you something that you could never depict in the same way with live action. It’s a firm riposte to people who say that animated films are just for kids; this is a work of art.
It is, however, suitable for children and may even be a helpful tool for them. At its heart, Song of the Sea is a film about coping with grief. When the mother disappears, each of the characters respond to this loss in different but recognisable ways. Ben is resentful of his sister, who he implicitly blames for the mother’s absence. The grandmother tries to escape or block out the emotions by getting as far away from it as possible, while the father wallows in the sadness. The dramatic events of the mythological world hold eerie echoes of these human stories, both in the look of the characters and in their voices.
There are two levels of parable here, firstly within the film as Ben and Saoirse’s travels in the faerie world help them to understand their loss, and secondly with the film as a whole functioning as a fable to the viewers. None of this is heavy-handed; far from it, the relationships are drawn with honesty, and the emotions feel real. The nuance displayed in Song of the Sea is a tonic to the mawkish sentimentality that Hollywood can tend towards.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn’t like my reviews of Exodus or Selma – there isn’t loads to get stuck into about faith themes or Christian imagery (watch The Secret of Kells for more to talk about along those lines), but what it does is show the power of storytelling as a form of explanation. Christianity has a rich history of using narrative to speak of deeper things, yet I wonder, sometimes, if the literalism that often comes hand-in-hand with evangelicalism leaves us suspicious of imagination (unless it is Narnia or Lord of the Rings). Yet Song of the Sea demonstrates how traditional mythology, relayed with artistry and a sense of awe, can be used to explore the complexity of human experience. It shows you the power of stories.
Song of the Sea is in UK cinemas now.