The current predicament surrounding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic looms larger in the public consciousness in the UK than it has since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. With the ripple effect of Brexit quickly becoming a tidal wave across the Irish Sea, things feel even more febrile and uncertain for those on the border than they do on the English side of the water. It’s into that unique environment of shifting waters and sword-of-Damocles tension that writer-director Cathy Brady’s new film Wildsifre emerges. It’s not about the politics, but it’s certainly infused with it.
As Ireland’s two halves are on the verge of estrangement, two siblings are coming back together. Kelly (Nika McGuigan) fled the border town where she lived in the wake of her mother’s death, which is considered to be a suicide by many in the local community, though Kelly and her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) believe it was merely a car accident. Lauren now has a job in a warehouse and is married to Sean (Martin McCann), while maintaining a close bond with aunt Veronica (Kate Dickie). Kelly’s return brings many old emotions and struggles to the surface.
Brady’s story is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the debate about Ireland’s past and future, with “United Ireland Now” graffiti visible behind the sisters in a crucial scene. They lost their father in an IRA bomb attack perpetrated by men who are still able to drink in pubs within their community, having faced no consequences for their actions. This is a story about two women grappling with their past, just as their nation’s past is being dragged back into sharp focus.
At the centre of the film are two wonderful performances. McGuigan, who sadly passed away after a battle with cancer in the wake of filming, is terrific as a haunted woman who has been terminally off-balanced by the trauma of losing both of her parents in tragic circumstances. Noone, who was so brilliant in the truly terrifying 2005 horror The Descent, is given a real journey to go on throughout the course of the movie and plays every moment with intense reality. Lauren is a woman who has buried her trauma to live a normal life, but the return of her sister brings those wounds bursting through the surface.
Wildfire serves as a strong depiction of the ways in which hidden wounds are never really gone, just as has proven to be true with the nation beneath these characters’ feet. Kelly is often seen swimming in a river that traverses the border and she tells a group of kids they can be in two countries at once, citing the fact that “just because you can’t see [the border] doesn’t mean it’s not real”. However deeply these divisions and traumas are buried, they’re still there and they still have the power to eat away at people and countries.
Not everything about Wildfire works and it would be fair to describe the storytelling as a little scattergun, with numerous elements coming across as under-baked. Notably, Dickie’s character is introduced as a major player, only to have little impact on the way the narrative pans out. The visual style will be familiar to fans of lo-fi British and Irish independent movies and it’s only a late in the day scene at a bar that provides a bit of visual energy, rather lacking elsewhere.
With that said, Wildfire serves as a timely and intriguing meditation on the nature of lasting pain caused by fissures that cannot be healed. McGuigan and Noone elevate the material with textured performances and Brady’s script gives them plenty to work with, even if it’s not the most vivid and surprising work in front of the camera. Whatever this filmmaker does next, it’ll certainly be a delight to watch it.
Dir: Cathy Brady
Scr: Cathy Brady
Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie
Prd: David Collins, Carlo Cresto-Dina, Charles Steel
DOP: Crystel Fournier
Music: Gareth Averill, Matthew James Kelly
Country: Ireland, UK
Run time: 85 minutes
Wildfire is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival.