Jim Sheridan’s handsome yet flimsy melodrama The Secret Scripture (★★, cert 12A, 109 mins) turns out to be a tale of two actresses, one great, one getting there, neither quite given the script they deserve.

We’re greeted by no less a figure than Vanessa Redgrave, lasting out her days in a decommissioned asylum in Sligo in the early 1990s, thereby delaying plans to convert her long-term residence into a trendy health spa. Rewinding to World War II, we meet Rooney Mara, fearless, free-spirited, described at that time as “a tempting beauty”, and thus perhaps inevitably doomed to be wronged by the men of her era.

It might not come as a surprise – even less so if you’ve read Sebastian Barry’s novel – to discover that the two are the same woman, one Rose Clear, as observed at different moments in her life. As asylum doc Eric Bana settles down to decipher the pictograms and cryptic commentary that Rose the Elder has sketched into the margins of her Bible over the years, we get to find out why Rose the Younger was placed under lock and key. Here’s where Mara takes over, as fetching in period garb as she was in 2015’s Carol, turning diverse heads: those of a brooding priest (Theo James), a working lad (Aidan Turner, barely present) and – most excitingly – a fighter pilot (Jack Reynor) whom she rescues after he’s shot down in the woods.

If this sounds to you like an unusually florid tale to come from the director of In the Name of the Father, you wouldn’t be wrong. Granted, the novel offers its own commentary on organised religion: Sheridan chooses to keep in the priests separating, with a ruler, over-affectionate couples at the village dance (“Make room for the Holy Spirit”), and Rose overwriting the Book of Job once the Church betrays her. Yet nobody’s pushing unduly hard: young Rose’s spell in a Magdalene laundry suggests that Sheridan’s ambition lay not in making some scabrous anti-clerical attack, but rather gentle matinee fodder.

In fairness, the film is attentively composed. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman fashions an attractive contrast between Ireland’s broad landscapes and suffocating interiors, while the ensemble brims with welcome faces: Adrian Dunbar, Susan Lynch, Pauline “Mrs Doyle” McLynn (Barry’s strain of small-town Catholicism surely fed Father Ted, too).

It’s a sign of Sheridan’s standing that, even after a decade in the career doldrums, this much talent still itched to work with him. The pity is that there’s only so much depth this material can provide. Casting light on these pages reveals them to be porous indeed: a fantasy of sorts – gorgeous young woman, two-dimensional hunks – wrapped neatly together in a hidebound literary device.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection