Wildfire: the late Nika McGuigan is charismatic in her final role

Toronto International Film Festival featured cheery Saoirse Ronan and fine new Irish movie

Norah-Jane Noone (left) and Nika McGuigan in Wildfire.

Norah-Jane Noone (left) and Nika McGuigan in Wildfire.

 

Another busy few days for domestic talent at the Toronto International Film Festival saw Saoirse Ronan giving a cheery public interview and Cathy Brady finally unveiling her much anticipated feature debut Wildfire.

Speaking to Canadian writer Anne T Donahue, Ronan, whose new film Ammonite premiered at Tiff, chatted about tentative beginnings, rapid rise and the pressures of success.

“I was very lucky that I got very cool and interesting jobs since I was young and I don’t need to rush into a job just to work,” she told online attendees. “It’s important to me not to lose the bond with my work and it has continued to be satisfying.”

Ronan is something of an institution at Tiff. John Crowley’s Brooklyn played at the festival in 2015 and it was during that edition that she met up with Greta Gerwig and they began discussing Lady Bird. The two sat in a hotel room and Saoirse read the lead role while Gerwig read all the others. Two years later, Lady Bird was the hottest ticket at the festival. During the conversation she mused upon those her Oscar-nominated roles in that film and in Brooklyn.

“With both, I was with a director who had a very personal connection to these characters and I was incredibly close and collaborative in informing who these women were,” she said. “One of the things Lady Bird made me aware of was that there is such a pressure to be yourself and be who you are and it has to be this solid thing that doesn’t shift, but it always does.”

Suspicions and hostility

An inescapable poignancy hangs over the delayed unveiling of Wildfire. In July 2019, some months after Brady finished shooting, Nika McGuigan, the film’s charismatic star, died at the age of 33.

There is much to recommend this intense, passionate drama set among the liminal spaces – geographical and psychological – that characterise the Irish Border, but McGuigan’s performance is the standout aspect.

Buttoned-up and intense, her hooded eyes leaking inner distress, she plays Kelly, a young woman returning home to an angry family after a period missing across the Irish Sea. She and her sister Lauren (the always excellent Norah-Jane Noone) were inseparable until the mysterious death of her mother. Now they must battle with suspicions and hostility in a land still punch-drunk from the years of violence.

The team knew one another well. Brady gained her reputation with a series of excellent shorts at the turn of the last decade – Noone stood out in Small Change from 2010 – before going on to direct McGuigan in the popular series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. The director’s gift for constructing striking set-pieces among bleak vistas is again prominent in her first feature.

Imposed unreality

The two women dance aggressively to a blaring rendition of Them’s Gloria. They float in a lake (limnal as well as liminal, come to think of it) that lies along the border. One terrific sequence, getting at Kelly’s refusal to settle for the mediocre, sees her engaging in violent confrontation with an antisocial van driver.

The factory in which Lauren works is a forbidding mass of canyons, peopled by workers in blue smocks. Crystel Fournier, the cinematographer who did such good work on Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, paints all this in a very Irish damp diffusion

The notion that the imposed unreality of border life is seeping into personal interactions is unavoidable. This was always an unsettled place. Glimpses of street signs addressing Brexit suggest that greater disturbance may be on the way. The pubs are still crowded with IRA men. Toffee-nosed children suggest that the sisters’ late mother was crazy.

The relationship between the two women – Irish twins, perhaps – offers some hope of a volatile resolution, but circumstances may be against them. Noone deals in a measured unhappiness, McGuigan in an intense, battened-down fury.

Brady’s own screenplay suffers from slackness of plot and stuttering forward motion, but those interactions keep the atmosphere alive throughout a handy running time. Wildfire ends with a dedication to McGuigan. The film itself is a memorial.

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