Wildfire

 

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A striking first feature from Ireland is at its best when studying the bond between two sisters.

 
Wildfire

The late Nika McGuigan

 

This is the first feature film to be directed by Cathy Brady and it immediately makes her a name to note. She wrote the screenplay for it too and again there is much promise shown although in this area her judgment sometimes seems less assured. In any event Wildfire is well worth seeking out and its appeal is much strengthened by the two leading performances. For once we have a film in which two female roles are absolutely central and the actresses concerned, Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone, are excellent. In McGuigan’s case this is the last we shall see of her since tragically she died of cancer in 2019 at the age of only thirty-three. At least she went out on a high, for this is a surely her finest performance.

 

Wildfire is a contemporary tale set in a community close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It is at its best in portraying the complex relationship between two sisters whose mother has died in a car crash but in circumstances that render suicide a possibility. At the outset we witness the return to Ireland of Kelly (that’s McGuigan’s role). She arrives by sea and makes for the home of her sister, Lauren (Noone), and of her brother-in-law, Sean (Martin McCann). There is also an aunt (Kate Dickie) who lives nearby. We quickly realise that Kelly had gone missing a year earlier and had not been in touch since. It is apparent that both sisters have been traumatised to some extent by their mother’s death and, while Lauren is deeply relieved to find that Kelly is alive, she is understandably resentful of Kelly’s failure to send her any reassurance over the previous twelve months.

 

Wildfire plays as a small but telling film centred on the far from straightforward bond between the sisters, one in which anger can erupt at unexpected moments but which nevertheless is built on a basic unity that cannot be set aside. Both the writing and the playing capture this key element admirably and, regardless of the special circumstances present here, Brady give us a universally recognisable and admirably detailed portrait of the close relationship that can exist between siblings. The tensions shown in the film are, of course, all the greater on account of both the nature of the mother’s death and of the passing suggestions that Kelly resembles her, the latter implying that Kelly’s instability might amount to more than a traumatic reaction alone.

 

Understandably - and quite properly - the central situation makes for an intense and heavy drama, but one that is handled very naturalistically for the most part. In keeping with that, there is an effective and subtle music score. However, when the climax comes the style of the film changes and a dramatic scene plays out with a series of shots separated by allowing the screen to go black in between them. This feels like artifice and the scene which follows - one showing a drive to the coast - carries a hint of familiar fictions in contrast to the smooth individuality of the film’s first hour (those earlier scenes are notable for the director’s ease with the ’Scope format and her ability to retain a sense of intimacy despite the wider image). Her approach also involves telling the story in a way that always seems aware of Ireland’s political history from the Troubles to current issues due to Brexit. This aspect is prominent enough to make one wonder if the personal tale with its theme of union between the sisters is offering some kind of parallel with these wider issues. If so, it doesn’t really work, but perhaps that was not really the intention despite the hints of it. In any case the film functions best when focussed fully on the sibling relationship and when on that ground it is often quite splendid. In passing, it is worth adding that in the course of Wildfire Cathy Brady comes up with the most striking use of the colour red since Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Kate Dickie, Martin McCann, Olga Wehrly, Uriel Emil, Helen Behan, Noni Stapleton, Aiste Gramantaite, Amanda Hurwitz, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford, Lucia Keane, Sarah Cranston.

 

Dir Cathy Brady, Pro David Collins, Carlo Cresto-Dina and Charles Steel, Screenplay Cathy Brady, Ph Crystel Fournier, Pro Des John Leslie, Ed Matteo Brai, Music Gareth Averill and Matthew James Kelly, Costumes Angela Billows.

 

BFI/Cowboy Films/Film4/Samson Films/Tempesta Films UK-Modern Films.
85 mins. UK/Ireland. 2020. Rel: 3 September 2021. Cert. 15.