Cult Movies: Cathy Brady's Wildfire 'crackles with kinetic energy and a wealth of ideas'

Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone in Wildfire
Ralph McLean

FEATURING as it does the final screen performance by Nika McGuigan, who died from cancer at the tragically young age of 33 in 2019, it's perhaps inevitable that Wildfire is a film tinged with the slow, aching throb of sadness and loss.

Cathy Brady's film, screening now at the QFT, is certainly a fitting tribute to a rare talent no longer with us, but it's so much more besides. An intense, deeply moving and occasionally upsetting study of passionate sisterly connection, wild howling grief and creeping mental illness borne out of horrific trauma, it's not an easy watch – but one that is rewarding all the same.

Nora-Jane Noone is Lauren, a haunted figure droning through her average life, working in an average Amazon-esque warehouse and living in an average house with her stoic and reserved husband (Martin McCann) in an average border town where the locals like to gossip and staying afloat is no easy task as Brexit takes hold.

When her clearly troubled sister Kelly suddenly shows up after disappearing 12 months previously, it re-ignites their life-long, deep rooted spark, but also dredges up memories of their mother who killed herself when they were young children.

As bad memories and ghosts of troubles past swirl in around them, their world starts to fall apart and disaster looms large on the barren horizon.

Writer/director Brady has crafted something deep and primal from those raw materials. The result is a film that crackles with kinetic energy and a wealth of ideas that, while not always successful, are never less than emotionally involving.

Both sisters spark wildly off each other throughout, creating an onscreen tension you rarely get to witness these days. McGuigan brings a twitchy vulnerability and complexity to the role of the eternal misfit Kelly that is genuinely affecting, but Noone matches her scene for scene in the intensity stakes with a performance as a broken woman who's so close to the edge you feel she may explode at any second.

Aside from the genuinely remarkable double act at the film's emotional core, there is a less satisfying series of occasionally mawkish flashbacks to childhood and some overly convenient plot contrivances as the bleak storyline tries to wrap itself up as neatly as possible. Through these structural speed bumps though, there are real moments of cinematic release.

Memorably, the two sisters dance wildly to Them's Gloria in a mostly empty pub, echoing Morrison's faintly unhinged vocal with their almost psychotically synchronised moves before facing off a couple of leering local IRA men with a boldness previously unseen.

Another time, we see what appears to be a wild wolf trapped in a car's headlights as the almost psychedelic visuals pull us ever deeper and the symbolism is cranked up to almost unbearable levels.

A film about Ireland past and present, Wildfire is also a study of love, loss and deep bottomless grief in a borderland that's believable in every way. It's also a film about wounded women at their wits end trying to make sense of their lot in life.

Try to see on the big screen while you can.

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