Director: Cathy Brady
London Film Festival 2020 review
The past is never really past in Cathy Brady’s turbulent feature debut, which blends the personal with the political for a thematically rich portrayal of lasting trauma in the long shadow of history. Opening with a barrage of news footage that connects the Northern Ireland conflict to Brexit, Wildfire suggests that a hard border could lead to a resurgence of the violence seen during the Troubles, before zeroing in on the story of two sisters haunted by the lingering spectres of their own shared history.
Sisters Kelly (Nika McGuigan) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) grew up on the Irish border in a community where the violence of the not-so-distant past still holds a palpable presence. Here is a place where a resident might run into their own father’s killer in the local bar, or the explanation for a colleague’s limp may arouse painful collective memories from two decades prior. For the two siblings, meanwhile, it is the death of their mother – a possible suicide, as much as Lauren may deny it – that continues to weigh on their psyches, though each has managed to avoid coping with the trauma in their own distinct way.
The more ostensibly unstable of the pair is Kelly, whom we first see returning to the border after a year off the grid. With the details of her time away left ambiguous, Kelly arrives without warning at the home of Lauren, who’s both relieved to find that her sister is still alive and furious at Kelly for her year-long absence. After successfully pleading with Lauren to let her stay, Kelly begins to re-familiarise herself with the community, though it isn’t long before her erratic behaviour draws the ire and derision of the locals.
With her sleepless eyes and ragged demeanour, Kelly is a tragic flake whose compelling presence is bolstered by an exceptional turn from Nika McGuigan (who passed away from cancer-related illness shortly after the film’s completion). Though her nervous sister regards her as a constant flight risk, Kelly’s return is in many ways a wilful regression as she digs out her mother’s old clothes and takes regular dips in the river next to her childhood home. Kelly’s swims are even accompanied on occasion by a group of neighbourhood children, though the innocence and simplicity they evoke is sullied somewhat when it is revealed that they too have heard the stories of Kelly’s “crazy” mother. Just as Kelly’s mental illness is partially inherited from her mother, it seems that local legends and old prejudices have a way of passing between generations.
Meanwhile, though Lauren appears at first glance to fit comfortably into the role of responsible sibling, Kelly’s return, along with her insistence on opening up old wounds, exposes Lauren’s own inability to process the traumas of their childhood. Though Lauren’s love for her sister is never in question, their every exchange carries an underlying tension that channels the former’s ongoing state of denial. As much as Lauren may try to suppress the ugliness of the past, we get the sense that even her good memories have become tainted by her mother’s death, while Kelly’s very presence remains a distressing reminder of all Lauren is trying to forget.
In its attempts to channel the tumultuous inner lives of its two leads, Wildfire occasionally takes a turn for the overwrought in its second half. The use of voiceover to evoke the late mother and childhood memories of Lauren and Kelly seems particularly gratuitous, and the surprisingly action-heavy climax marks a jarring shift after the relatively restrained, structurally loose drama that came before it.
Nonetheless, Brady’s assured direction and talented cast ensure that we’re never far away from another moment of sharp insight or melancholic beauty, and the catharsis of the film’s final moments feels well earned, given the persuasively erratic journey that precedes it. By the time the credits role on Wildfire, we get the impression that Kelly and Lauren are finally ready to begin the process of healing, though whether the community they live in is capable of finding its own path to reconciliation is a question left lingering.