Kaleidoscopic colours and geometric shapes abound in this dazzling and absorbing 2D animation from director Tomm Moore. Based on the real-life Book of Kells, the film tells a fictional story of its creation and preservation during the Viking invasion of Ireland. Young Brendan lives within the walls of The Abbey of Kells under the protection of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). After the famed illuminator Aidan of Iona seeks refuge at the abbey, Brendan becomes entranced with the unfinished “Book of Iona” that he has brought with him. Impressed by his enthusiasm, Aidan asks Brendan for his help on the book, requesting that the boy to venture out in to the woods beyond the walls in search of berries to make ink. On his search, Brendan befriends woodland waif Aisling, and what follows is a beautifully told and visually stunning tale of friendship, faith and the power of art.
With images inspired by illustrations from the Book of Kells itself, the film weaves in and out of settings with magical fluidity. Switching from birds’ eye views to close ups of faces, proportions and dimensions are played with to great effect. At times the animation appears flat, as though the characters are moving across a page with only lines to suggest walls, windows, or trees. Other times the screen will split into three, or layers of colour and line will leap over each other like waves, resembling a collage. The beauty of the film is that it knows when to take risks. Each second of action is presented with startling creativity. The scenes within the abbey are brilliantly coloured, with walls of deep blue offset by white shafts of light. Meticulous designs are scribbled on to the stones of the Abbot Cellach’s room, you can just about make out bolts, cogs and wheels, all drawn with obsessive intricacy.
Through well thought out characters and a solid plot, the film excels in both visuals and content. The friendship between Brendan and Aisling is sweet but never twee, and Abbot Cellach’s flaws and punishments never see him step in to the role of “baddie”, but instead only emphasise his insecurities. Aidan of Iona is delightfully eccentric; with white hair and an expressive face he is a beacon of goodwill. And his cat Pangur Ban is delightfully aloof in amongst all the raucous, beautifully drawn with a little crossed button nose and wide green eyes. One of the most magical segments of animation sees Aisling transforming the cat into spirit form, sending him off on a secret errand whilst singing a tune in Irish Gaelic.
Involving danger and death as well as happiness, The Secret of Kells is exceptional in its ability to balance heaviness and light-heartedness. Dealing with material steeped in tradition and freighted with religious resonances, it never preaches morals, but instead salvages simple truths for reflection. In the midst of chaos, there will always be companionship and loyalty, and love and sacrifice, and these qualities exist in all walks of life regardless of religious conviction.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★