BFI LFF 2020

Wildfire review – unsettling tale of two sisters at the Irish border

Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone are siblings facing up to their mother’s dark past in Cathy Brady's captivating debut feature

Sisterhood is a complex connection, the innate bond a force of unyielding support and also an excuse for constant bickering. In writer-director Cathy Brady’s disconcerting feature debut, Wildfire, the loyalty between two sisters is put to the test at the Irish border. When Kelly (Nika McGuigan) arrives on her sister’s doorstep having gone missing for a year and presumed dead, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) is violently ripped from her state of mourning.

After losing their mother when they were young, the two sisters are united by traumatic bereavement. Brady’s captivating film centralises the intensity of rebuilding sisterhood under the shadow of grief as the pair fall into an unpredictable rapport of ferocity and vulnerability. Kelly’s impulsiveness comes up against Lauren’s attempt at mitigation as the news of her sister’s return begins to spread – true to the title – like wildfire.

Kelly is wrapped in her late mother’s coat when she makes the deliberately provocative comment: “You know I’m the same age that mum was when she died.” The red coat she wears haunts the flashbacks of both women, their heartbreak worsened by the ambiguity of their mother’s death. With devastatingly raw and free-flowing tears, these performances are extraordinarily sobering and wholeheartedly believable. It is thanks to McGuigan and Noone that the mesmerising sibling dynamic has momentum. On the sidelines, Lauren’s husband, Sean (Martin McCann), and their Aunt, Veronica (Kate Dickie), make efforts to engage, but ultimately this is a conversation that can only be had between sisters.

Whenever sisterhood is foregrounded, Brady endeavours to intertwine the personal and the political. The sisters’ shared anguish plays out as an allegory for familial trauma at the Irish border. From “United Ireland Now” graffiti to news broadcasters’ musings on the hard Brexit border, Kelly and Lauren’s grievances are a microcosm for the re-awakening of Irish political unrest. Although promising, this material appears isolated amongst the film’s dramatic dealings. This comes to a head with a heavy-handed metaphor that equates the sister’s treacherous relationship to the island's divided history.

Wildfire is at its best when it leans on the reconciliation of memory to draw together both the struggles and the sanctuary of sisterhood. As grief permeates Brady’s storytelling, a poignant tale of sisterly love manages to emerge out of murky political tensions.

Wildfire was screened part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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