FILM REVIEW: Wildfire – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Noble Horvath

Writer and Director: Cathy Brady The Irish entries into the London Film Festival are always some of the most exciting in the programme and this year is no different with the excellent animation Wolfwalkers and resonant drama Herself providing female-led stories that have opened to much acclaim. But make some […]

Writer and Director: Cathy Brady

The Irish entries into the London Film Festival are always some of the most exciting in the programme and this year is no different with the excellent animation Wolfwalkers and resonant drama Herself providing female-led stories that have opened to much acclaim. But make some time for Cathy Brady’s powerful Wildfire about sisters confronting the effect and stigma of family tragedy.

Returning to a border town in Northern Ireland after a long absence, Kelly hitches her way home, still troubled by an alleged suicide years before. Arriving at Lauren’s house, the sisters are confronted by their memories when Kelly starts to wear a coat she finds in the shed. As the family reconnects, the high-spirited Kelly’s behaviour concerns the more buttoned-up Lauren, and their lives are turned upside down as their unprocessed grief emerges.

The visual remnants of the struggle for a united Ireland are all around in Cathy Brady’s impressive film, from the graffiti on road signs to the large-scale messaging on the sides of houses. The brief and tightly plotted film begins with news footage of protests, marches, bomb damage and funerals during The Troubles then comes right up-to-date with presenters warning that Brexit issues will reinflame the peace that has held for over 20 years.

Brady’s film is an intense examination of grief and control as the catalystic reunion of siblings causes both to writhe against the limitations of their small town and its inhabitants. Frustrated by suspicions of mental illness and local gossip, Wildfire is a film where the violent creation and protection of personal and national identities are never far from the surface.

This is a film about the long consequences of Irish and Northern Irish history in the last 40 years told through the experience of one family. Brady is interested in how the release of prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement directly affected a family whose father was killed by bomb. The existence of these groups side-by-side proves a psychological strain on the protagonists exacerbated by gossip about their mother’s death.

Brady builds this tension throughout the film, moving the sisters closer together as they become increasingly frustrated and thereby isolated from the community. This becomes part of the visual language of the film as hazy memories start to break through and in the adoption of a vivid red coat that Kelly adopts, a colour even Lauren moves towards as their mutual self-destruction begins to concern the steadiness of those around them.

Nora-Jane Noone is particularly good as Lauren, a woman sustaining an ordinary life with her husband Sean (an increasingly bewildered Martin McCann) and job at a local factory. But slowly from the point of Kelly’s arrival, Noone shows Lauren’s irritation with the gossips turning to angry outbursts and wild behaviour as she breaks free of the confines while showing a care for sister that is defining. Nika McGuigan’s Kelly is a lost soul drawn home, haunted by what happened to their mother leading her to unconventional behaviour, trusting only her sister.

Irish film makes a huge annual contribution to this festival and Wildfire is an accomplished 85 minutes that manages to retain its tight focus on the bond between sisters and their very personal experience that drives the story. Yet Brady references the wider complexities and experience of living with the legacy of civil war at a time when divisions are being stoked once again.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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