Wildfire (2020) BFI LFF Review

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Jack Cameron.


Wildfire (2020)
Director: Cathy Brady
Screenwriter: Cathy Brady
Starring: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Kate Dickie, Martin McCann

Opening with composited newsreel footage of UK soldiers patrolling the streets of Belfast, bomb explosions, arrests, mass incarcerations and family tragedy, the first few minutes of Wildfire whip through the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Particular attention is given to the Good Friday agreement and the early release of political prisoners before snapping forwards to the present day where the news rapidly changes to talks about Brexit. The concerns around the Withdrawal Agreement and the potential introduction of a hard border are the final notes in this opening montage. It is into this uncertain atmosphere that Wildfire’s story starts proper.

Kelly (Nika McGuigan – Philomena), looking rough and tired, hitchhikes her way back home. When she arrives, she receives a surprised and somewhat frosty welcome. Going from the reaction of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone – The DescentBrooklyn), Kelly’s arrival is as mysterious as her reason for leaving in the first place. Once the ice breaks, the two sisters begin to rebuild their relationship, a process that requires digging through some unpleasant memories. This feature debut from writer/director Cathy Brady starts strong with an intriguing premise, but unfortunately fails to deliver on it.

Exactly what has happened between the two sisters is kept in the dark for much of the film. Instead, Wildfire asks the audience to engage with the atmosphere and tone it’s building. Here Brady builds a clear sense of unspoken tension, as though there is something in the air that threatens to upset everything. In fact, these moments are the film’s greatest strength. Lauren works in the equivalent of an Amazon warehouse where packages must be shipped to a tight schedule. Failure to do so results in her personal timer setting off an alarm. It’s a situation that is reflected in the world around her as most of Ireland waits with baited breath to see how Brexit will affect them, with their hard-won peace rapidly running out of time. In much the same way as Ken Loach did in Sorry We Missed You, Brady offers a shaming indictment of how modern workplaces treat their staff, here pushing things even further to succinctly reflect a complicated political situation which is treating its populace just as poorly.



As strongly crafted as the tone is however, there isn’t a lot done with it narratively. It certainly touches upon plenty, possibly too much, but not enough to add depth or dimension. When the violent death of Kelly and Lauren’s father is revealed, and the mystery of their mother’s suicide is explored, the film elicits some sympathy, but never feels nearly as impactful as it should. As Lauren and Kelly explore their pasts, their emotions run raw. Despite Kelly being constantly described as the more unhinged of the pair, Lauren is given almost identical characteristics to the point where both women are indistinguishable. There’s no conflict between the sisters, and instead, for most of the film, they each work as a feedback loop for one another’s grief and anger. As a result, everything looks intense but feels flat.

Both McGuigan and Noone are formidable in the lead roles despite the narrative’s obvious handicapping of their performances. Despite hosting similar characteristics, both performers ensure their roles are distinct. It’s a joy to watch how one can melt the steely demeanour of the other, finally cracking a smile; or heart-breaking to see the clear hole left by the loss of their parents. Their dynamic seems to touch on something primal, and if it weren’t for the film’s realistic tone, it wouldn’t be surprising (or unwelcome) to see the sisters transform into a pair of vengeful spirits, or escape on a Thelma and Louise-esque adventure. It’s unfortunate how, despite carrying the film, even their exceptional qualities in performance are unable to hold up the relatively poor story.

Wildfire is by no means a bad film. It is built on some really excellent ideas, some of which are executed perfectly, but most of which are spread too thin. The film is battling somewhere between being a realistic drama and a more poetic exploration of generational loss and trauma. The sisters’ relationship is the film’s main drive, but with all the additional commentary about history, politics and Brexit each vying for attention, by the time Wildfire is finished we are left with a seemingly incomplete journey; more a hazy sense of confusion about how they got there than a satisfactory conclusion about where they went.

12/24

Written by Jack Cameron


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