Wildfire: Nika McGuigan burns brightly in her final performance

Review: Border psychodrama has impressive visuals and excellent performances

Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone in Wildfire

Film Title: Wildfire

Director: Cathy Brady

Starring: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Kate Dickie, Martin McCann, David Pearse

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 84 min

Fri, Sep 3, 2021, 05:00

   

The first words heard in Cathy Brady’s debut feature are those of John Irvine from ITN talking us through the Omagh bombing. We get a bit of Bryan Dobson on the Belfast Agreement. Then we move on to footage of Brexit complications. Thus is the scene set for a rattled tale of life on the Border.

A great deal has, however, happened since Wildfire finished shooting in early 2019. The Covid crisis offers Brexit fair competition for the issue of the hour. Nika McGuigan’s tragically early death a few months after wrap has added awful poignancy to the delayed release. Appearing opposite Nora-Jane Noone in a film that twists the actors round each other like competing bindweed, McGuigan could hardly have delivered a more bracing final performance. So savage is her turn that you expect water drops to hiss off her broiling skin.

After that opening montage, Crystel Fournier’s camera finds young Kelly (McGuigan) on the deck of a ferry making its way back to the old country. We learn that, fleeing the border town after the mysterious death of her mother, Kelly left her family in a state of tense unease. They are happy to see her well but are unable to contain their fury at her failing to let them know she was still above ground.

The relationship that matters most is with her sister Lauren (Noone). Born close enough to qualify as “Irish twins”, the pair soon shake off differences to reform as a combined storm system. As they sweep through the town they kick up any number of buried enigmas and barely contained tensions. We wonder if their mother killed herself. We learn the grim truth about their father’s earlier death.

The compromises of the Belfast Agreement have only added to the contradictions in this liminal space. Released murderers drink freely in the local pub. The sprawling warehouse where Lauren works – busily serviced by staff in blue hi-vis vests – is built right next to the site of an atrocity. A nearby lake still allows the girls to float with this leg in one country and that leg in another. Wildfire is constantly alert to the imposition of literal and figurative frontiers, but steps back from any explicit political commentary.

Brady, raised in Newry, established her reputation with a series of brilliant shorts at the beginning of the last decade, and her talent for electrifying vignettes remains undiminished. We see Kelly sitting before the words “United Ireland Now”, scrawled in white across an orange shutter that sits beside a bookmakers’ green livery. She gets in an altercation with a van that leaves her nose bloodied. Elsewhere, the sisters dance furiously to Gloria by Them. More than 50 years after Van Morrison first barked out the lyric, his raw, hammered-down frustration still connects with an unfulfilled northern angst.

The relationship between the initially less fired-up Lauren and the constantly adrenalised Kelly swings more towards the latter as they fail to break through the surrounding evasions. The framing is clean. Noone and McGuigan play off complementary energies as they evolve one symbiotic organism.

For all the impressive visuals and all the excellent performances – hats off also to Kate Dickie and Martin McCann as circling relatives – it is hard to avoid the suspicion that, despite its long production cycle, there is something missing at the heart of Wildfire. The film has momentum. It has a destination. It has an abundance of themes (perhaps too many). There is, however, a hollow where the plot ought to be. The tensions are set up in the opening 20 minutes and, with few reversals or revelations, they then uncoil towards an inevitable catharsis.

Brady the director – if not Brady the writer – can, nonetheless, boast a singular debut. This thing stays with you.

Opens on September 3rd