Saturday 18 September 2021

In retreat: "Wildfire"

I'd be surprised if there's a review of Cathy Brady's Wildfire that doesn't deploy the adjective "brooding". It's a film with several dark clouds hanging over it, and some of these are explained in the course of a nimbly edited prologue of news footage that offers a potted history of Northern Ireland up to and including Brexit. Brady's theme is division, and it becomes clear in the course of one of those unhappy homecomings that have become a feature of Film4-and-BFI-backed arthouse cinema in recent years. Kelly (the late Nika McGuigan, daughter of champion boxer Barry) heads back to her older sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone)'s house after a year on the mainland. Her immediate impact is to traipse mud into the carpet; yet gradually, she also stirs memories of the sisters' mother, who died while they were still children in the kind of mysterious circumstances first-time screenwriters must be being schooled to tease out. As witnessed by her hangout sessions with local pre-teens at a nearby lake, Kelly seems to regard this comeback as a second childhood, a chance to pick up where her mother left off, to rebuild and grow anew: she takes a crack at converting her hosts' garden into a makeshift vegetable patch. Lauren and her husband Sean (Martin McCann) are far less keen about digging things up, however, given that Kelly often appears borderline manic in her efforts to make up for lost time. Those efforts are also often met with violence. A white van man punches Kelly full in the face after she scurries to retrieve the rubbish bag he's dumped on the road; and the local watering hole is lorded over by ex-IRA veterans who've been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Good luck trying to unify and pacify all this, Wildlife seems to be saying.

So we're anticipating the worst, albeit in ferociously good company. All dirt and bruises, McGuigan - a newcomer to me, although she'd compiled a respectable list of credits before her death from colon cancer in 2019 - presents as a fully grown woman with something of the feral child about her; you can't help wondering how other directors would have deployed her fervent presence. Noone, meanwhile, gives the impression of a woman spooked by the intensity of the feelings this reunion has stirred up in her: it's as if her sister's reemergence brings out her inner Kelly, which is a tricky development when you're trying to hold down a steady job and keep your marriage together. Much of the evidence suggests Brady is a fine director of actors and emotion; as a screenwriter, though, she's not quite there yet. The withholding tactic she adopts with regard to the mother's death is an overly familiar one, and here feels like a means of circumnavigating a slight deficit of plot. Instead, individual scenes are left to build up and dissipate the film's underlying tensions; we're set circling around before the final confrontation with the truth. Some elements are effective: the sight of the girls wigging out to Van Morrison's "Gloria" in a red-lit taproom nudges an otherwise kitchen-sinky proposition further towards the properly cinematic. (It's the sort of thing Scorsese typically gets the boys to do in his crime movies.) Certain aspects feel underdeveloped, like Lauren's rotely antagonistic relationship with her other half. And I fear some viewers are bound to find the final moments anticlimactic - although even here Brady gestures towards something constructive: putting on a handbrake as a new way to negotiate the same old Troubles. What kept me interested was the film's vision of people being dragged backwards against their will: I sensed Brady trying to articulate the knot Irish citizens felt in their stomachs as Boris Johnson's disastrous idea of Brexit took hold. That side of the story really hasn't been reported anything like enough on the mainland. Brady has at least made a start here.

Wildfire is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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