Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 05, 2022 4:35 pm 
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Disturbing drama of the fallout of Northern Ireland's Troubles this time focused on two women

It is certainly true that first time director Cathy Brady gets what Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian calls "two fiercely committed performances" that are "the bedrock" of this Northern Irish border town drama which Brady also wrote. Yes, Nora-Jane Noone is solid as Lauren, the "sane," married sister and the late Nika McGuigan is riveting as Kelly, the troubled, possibly mentally deranged one, and when they play intimately together it's galvanizing, a unified force. But how the story plays out is not only troubling but confusing. What's suggested is certainly an interesting question: can a disturbed close relative cause someone to go completely haywire in sympathy? Perhaps so. But Brady plays with this idea without looking at it clearly and there are both powerful, propulsive scenes, and gaps in the writing including an ending that lacks force. Certailnly Brady shows great promise here; there is not only the great acting but poetic cinematography by Crystal Fournier and a subtle, spot-on, almost diegetic use of music by Gareth Averill and Matthew James Kelly, and we should look for what this writer-director does going forward, hoping future work will be less flawed.

That joint craziness, arguably justified by public events of the lingering trauma of The Troubles, and private family traumas, is the "wildfire" that springs up when Kelly returns. The action begins as she goes through customs, where we learn she's been listed as missing for a year. She's returning to her small Northern Ireland border town but doesn't want anyone informed. When she gets to Lauren's house, it's a surprise and terrible shock for her sister. It turns out the sisters are only a year apart and so close they're thought of as "the twins." Their mother committed suicide some time earlier, apparently in a car crash. She, the mother, was considered crazy by the locals, who all know each other. The tragedy of her husband's, the sisters' father's, death in an IRA bombing was surely a factor.

Kelly often has a wild, troubled look, and now that she's back, seems bent on digging things up from the past. Symbolically, soon after arrival she's up in the middle of the night literally digging up the back yard, a smooth, walled lawn, she says for what will be a great vegetable garden. Sean (Martin McCann), Lauren's husband, is the normal pillar between the two women (or trying to be) who finds Kelly's behavior unacceptable and Lauren's defense of it troubling. He announces that the grass must be put back immediately, and begins suggesting, with increasing insistence, that Kelly must "see someone" for a psychological evaluation.

It's made clear that Kelly's disappearance a year ago was devastating for Lauren. How adrift Lauren herself now is is indicated by where she works: a vast, alienating factory-like Amazon-style distribution center where she is often late and forgets to don her proper uniform. She is soon more at home with Kelly, and they go back to being like adolescent girls looking for fun or bursting with anger at outsiders. In the memorable central scene, they get drunk together (drinking from the same glass) at a pub and dance in close embrace to "Gloria" by Them featuring Van Morrison, played over and over on the Jukebox. They're eventually kicked out, but before that they confront a group of middle-aged men, particularly one called Gerry (David Pearse) who Kelly accuses of being the murderer of their father - and all of them, of what Bradshaw eloquently calls being "still in hock to the macho cult of terrorist violence."

In an interesting, favorable "Kermode and Mayo" spoken review Observer chief critic Mark Kermode says he likes films whose explored revelations are actually more or less clear from the start, "natural, organic progressions," as he feels Wildfire's are. One can see what he's getting at: dramatic "reveals" or "twists" often seem pat and fake, condescending to the audience. It's true as Kermode says that Brady, with help from dp Fournier, creates an "immediate world in which past and present coexist." But writing isn't complex and detailed enough to work out what Kermode points to as the film's central subject, the interaction of the private and the political.

Perpahs there are "natural, organic progressions," but it's still surprising how much Lauren will unravel, or how things will end up, with Lauren, to the despair of poor Sean (with whom I found myself increasingly in sympathy with), becoming more and more in sympathy and in league with Kelly, not in a good way, and the action winding up with the two sisters on a suicidal fugue. The death of their mother is never fully explored, but that it was suicide isn't really kept a secret, nor that Kelly is riven by anger and torment. I found myself disturbed not so much by the vague issues Kelly wants to confront, which flashbacks suggest are her own personal demons, as by how Sean gets lost in the shuffle here. He should have gotten Kelly to that therapist. This is a disturbing film, but unfortunately that's not just because of the unraveling of its two central women but because the action leaves too much vague and inchoate.

It remains to underline, however, that the sound and images are fine here, and the galvanic performances of the two leads show us what a great talent we lost in the untimely death of Nika McGuigan. Cathy Brady is a filmmaker to watch.

Wildfire, 85 mins, debuted at Toronto Sept. 2020, playing at London, Thessaloniki, Russia's Irish film festival, and San Diego. Screened for this review as part of the March 10-17, 2022 San Francisco Mostly British festival.
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