The Secret of Kells, like many films, barely registered on the theatrical radar before it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It lost to Up!, but the fact that it rose through the arthouse ranks at all to be nominated, since it’s a story about a young boy who lives in an abbey in the 9th century, is entirely due to the beauty of the artwork and the fascinating story. It really should have won, since in an age of CG movies it holds its own among them while being largely-hand drawn, with some CG embellishments.
12-year-old Brendan is the nephew of the Abbot at the Kells Abbey; his Uncle, Cellach, is obsessed with building a wall around the abbey that will protect the town and people from the Northmen (Vikings) who’ve been rampaging their way across Europe and drawing ever closer. Brendan is a sheltered boy, forbidden from leaving the abbey or handling a quill, and his duties are largely to work onthe wall and assist the other brothers. Though the abbey has a scriptorium, and Cellach himself once a celebrated illuminator (illuminators worked both to beautify the words of the Bible and just make them readable for the illiterate), little work has been done since he became obsessed with building the wall.
Complicating Cellach’s attempts to keep Brendan on-task is the arrival of Brother Aidan, a rock-star level illuminator whose works are legendary, carries the famous work of St.Colomba, and who distracts Brendan from his duties on the wall. Realizing the boy’s curiosity won’t be sated otherwise, Aidan encourages him to begin making his own decision, and even convinces him to leave the abbey and search the forest for an important nut used in the making of green ink.
Although an understanding of the importance of medieval illumination is helpful, it is not necessary to enjoy the story.
Basically, without places like the abbey, we wouldn’t have many of the classical works of history; scriptoriums acted like libraries and publishing houses, both keeping books safe in their vast collections and copying them for transport to other abbeys, or just reproducing books that were on the verge of crumbling away. They might have been working from a manuscript written by Julius Caesar or Plato, and that was 800 years old. Without that one dude sitting on his chair and working, we wouldn’t have the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Solon, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Heron. And that’s just the Western stuff; they had books from Arabic theosophers and historians, too. Abbeys were literally the last bastion between intellectual chaos and order. If you’re interested in learning more about medieval abbeys and what they did, you might read (or just watch the movie) Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it’s the consummate film of the last 40 years dealing with medieval life.
When Brendan ventures into the forest he meets Ashling, a faery, who watches over the forest and basically lives alone. Wild and untrusting of adults, she takes a liking to Aidan and shows him the wonders of her forest. His talk of the book excites and fascinates her.
The book itself is just awesome, when you finally get to see it. The real Book of Kells was an illuminated Gospel manuscript that contained the four gospels, and is considered one of Ireland’s great treasures. When people joke about how the Irish saved civilization, one of the things they’re talking about is the preservation of the book from the raids of the vikings. No one knows how it survived, and the film explores a fanciful possibility. Beyond the importance it represented to Christianity, its preservation at all costs by the people who believe in it is a moving and inspiring tale, which shows the dedication and courage of humans in the face of a rapacious foe. Think about it: this is a time period where few people had enough to eat, or even clothes to keep them warm, yet they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for something they may not have even been able to read.
The only thing about the movie, I thought, was that Ashling didn’t feel as well-written as some of the other characters. She is non-human, part of the older world of Ireland, and yet she helps Brendan and puts herself in danger to do so. Why would she do that? What has he done to earn her trust? I am totally reading more into this than I should, but since the movie has no other female characters I can’t help but wonder what little girls watching the film (it’s pretty safe for kids, there’s some scary imagery from the Vikings but it’s a lot less creepy than say, Coraline) might take away from it. Again, the little boy’s agency is more important than anything that the little girl might have going on. She does control the wolves of the forest, a badass pack who are stylized in red and black, but otherwise she doesn’t seem to connect the dots between the advent of Christianity and the extinction of her own people. I am totally reading too much into this and am the first to say so.
Here’s the trailer; everything the critics say is true.
If you’re looking for something for your kids to watch, and you’re a cool parent who wants to broaden your child’s worldview a little, you cannot go wrong with Kells. It might not be too good for very small children, since it’s dialogue-heavy at times, but you know your child’s attention span better than anyone.
The Secret of Kells is available on Instant Watch.