Wildfire

Ireland (2020) Dir. Cathy Brady

United we stand, divided we fall. A self-explanatory maxim applicable to a sheer plethora of situations where a tight bond between two or more people is crucial to survival. The most common example would be the family unit – a consolidated family can overcome anything, but not all families are that fortunate.

Kelly (Nika McGuigan) returns home to the Northern side of the Northern Ireland border one year after disappearing without a word to anyone, leaving her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) distraught with worry. Naturally, Kelly doesn’t get a warm welcome but she does convince Lauren to let her stay with her and husband Sean (Martin McCann). Over time, the sisters reconnect but Kelly’s behaviour is erratic, causing concern for many.

The reason for this is Kelly is still haunted by the death of their mother when they were younger, which some say was suicide, other a possible murder, whilst the official cause was a car accident. Lauren seems to know more than Kelly does but keeps it to herself, while local gossips and residual anger from the sisters’ aunt Veronica (Kate Dickie) push Kelly over the edge and she is danger of taking Lauren with her.

Having cut her teeth on Irish TV, writer-director Cathy Brady turns to the big screen for this tense drama about two sisters whose adult lives have been wrapped in mystery, and their handling of their grief couldn’t be any different. Wildfire only runs for 85-minutes but it cuts deep in that time, the fraught atmosphere in the family home presented as a parallel to the political bifurcation of their homeland.

Brady opens her film with TV news reports from the late 1990s when the Good Friday Agreement took effect, bringing a partial end to The Troubles and the devolution of the Northern Ireland government. It also saw many IRA receive an early release from prison and absolution of their crimes which comes into play later in the film. Brady then jumps forward to the present day to cover the disaster known as Brexit.

Northern Ireland being defined by religious and political disputes means Irish filmmakers feel duty bound to address it some way or another; Brady mostly eschews discussing this, opting instead to focus on the emotional strain of the sisters but through a distinctly Irish lens. The way it is broached is when the sisters swim in a lake on the border, and one can float in a certain spot to be in both North and South at the same time.

Such whimsy is prevalent in the rebuilding of the sisters’ relationship after the 12-month separation, effectively regressing back to their childhood where they had no worries or responsibilities. The catalyst is their mother (Olga Wehrly), shown only in flashbacks, presented as a ethereal almost mythical figure in her red coat and flowing black hair as the girls last remembered her.

Except Kelly doesn’t remember anything since she was asleep for most their final day together, growing up with second hand misinformation from others about her mother’s demise. Neither sister wants to entertain the suicide theory, so the car accident story becomes the default reason, yet there is a third possibility – the girls’ father was killed by an IRA bomb, and their mother was said to have confronted the culprits at a pub before she died.

Coincidence? They may never know, but what isn’t a coincidence is Kelly’s return having a negative impact on Lauren’s life. After venting at Kelly, Lauren forgives her for running off and tries to ignore Kelly’s increasingly odd behaviour. Sean on the other hand is having none of it and wants Kelly to see someone, creating a domestic dispute between them. This spills over to Lauren’s work at an Amazon-like depot, taking her moods out on insensitive, tongue wagging colleagues.

Ghosts of the past continue to haunt Kelly, compromising her mental state in the present which threaten her future, creating a never-ending cycle of misery and confusion. Whilst some may argue the mystery behind Kelly’s absence should remain ambiguous to avoid the story descending into melodramatic cliché, some form of explanation would have been nice, even if it were a deflective one, as it makes Kelly hard to read at times and often harder to sympathise with.

Lauren therefore is the de facto protagonist in the loosest sense but is also guilty of some poor decision making where Kelly is concerned, yet Brady goes to extraordinary lengths to highlight the bond the sister have. I refer to a breathless, hypnotic scene in which they “dance” to Them’s Gloria – or more accurately flail about like a voodoo witch doctor performing an exorcism, At one point, their bodies intertwine so tightly it is borderline incestuous and uncomfortable; the others in the pub thought so too.  

And it was all going so well until the final scene tampers with the film’s credibility as a knotty drama by throwing in a supernatural ending, either too cute for its own good or an interesting idea poorly executed. Prior to this, we are enrapt by the inexplicable chemistry of the two leads, Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan, and the sheer force of their gritty performances. Sadly, McGuigan died during post-production in 2019, adding a layer of poignancy this film will forever carry like a cross.   

For her first feature, Brady shows understanding of the language of cinema whilst also knowing when to indulge artistic aspirations to keep the integrity of the story intact. The script is generally well written and the dialogue feels natural and emotive, yet is missing the sisters opening up about their feelings towards their mother’s death, which I’m confident Brady could have handled with sensitivity and intelligence.

In Wildfire we have an affecting, provocative film that serves as both a promising debut and a raw swan song for two exciting talents. In the current climate of supporting grief related mental health, there is a salient tale here worthy of discussion.

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