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Irish film reveals a breathtaking 'Secret'

The film they directed, "The Secret Of Kells," is a dazzling French / Irish / Belgian co-production that takes us back to medieval Ireland in the time of the great illuminators who toiled for decades to create brilliant biblical manuscripts a half a milennium before the invention of movable type. Their finest work, The Book Of Kells, is one of the great treasures of Celtic culture, a 9th century masterpiece depicting the four gospels of the New Testament, and Moore and Twomey's film is set in the monastery of Kells at the time that the book was created there.

Their hero is Brendan, a cheerful young apprentice growing up in the care of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), a dour man obsessed with fortifying his monastery against attack by Vikings. Away from the watchful eye of Cellach, a motley assortment of monks keeps the boy entertained within the walls that constitute his entire world, as his uncle has forbidden him to leave the monastery.

A surprise visitor arrives at their gate: Brother Aidan, a legendary illuminator from the monastic island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. Aidan (voiced by Galway's Druid Theatre icon, Mick Lally, and drawn to look endearingly like Willie Nelson) arrives at Kells fleeing from Viking marauders who sacked the Iona cloister. Hidden in the folds of his cloak are a white cat named Pangur Ban, and the work-in-progress that will become The Book Of Kells. He takes refuge at Kells to complete the book, and his playful demeanor and genial personality charm the young monk Brendan, offering a delightful antidote to the grim tutelage of his uncle, the Abbot. Aidan sees in the boy a real talent and imagination that could help him finish the book as his eyesight fades and his hands become unsteady. To test the boy's resourcefulness, he sends him on a mission to find ink berries for his quills, and thus begins a dizzying adventure for Brendan that sends him outside the walls and into the forest, in defiance of his uncle's orders.

"The Secret of Kells" combines hand-drawn art and computer images in an intoxicating riot of color, deftly bouncing from three-dimensional swirls to flatter forms derived from the geometric calligraphy of the book that inspired the film. The Kells forest morphs from verdant fern fronds, spiralling dandelions and towering oaks to misty menace at sundown. Black wolves howl in the undergrowth, terrifying the berry-seeking boy til he's rescued by a mischievous, bossy wood-nymph named Aisling (voiced by a deadpan Christen Mooney). A magical shape-shifter of the pagan order that existed comfortably alongside the new Christian orthodoxy at a more innocent time for Ireland's churchmen, Aisling takes the form of a white wolf to protect him. With her help, the boy succeeds on his mission and quickly grows in confidence to become a skilled calligrapher.

Along the way, the film makes important points about the value and beauty of books, the eternal power of the words they contain, and the thrill of allowing a youngster's imagination to soar unfettered in the creation of art. But the "Kells" message is presented as such exhilerating entertainment that the kids watching won't even notice that they're learning a very valuable lesson indeed.

"The Secret Of Kells" is currently screening at IFC at Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, and City Cinemas Village East on Second Avenue, and will be available on DVD later this year.

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