Cathy Brady’s debut feature is marinaded in the horrors of the past while also concerned with the uncertainties of the present. An ambitious drama, Wildfire opens with reminders of the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, the eventual truce of the Good Friday Agreement, and the current concerns caused by Brexit. Among divisions old and new is the reunification of two sisters with a tragic past. Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone are a formidable central pairing, even if the film is ultimately solidly watchable underneath its rich thematic gloss. It also acts as a poignant tribute to the talent of McGuigan who sadly succumbed to cancer in 2019 not long after filming was completed.
Kelly (McGuigan) returns unannounced to the small town that straddles the Irish border. She has been missing for a year, so her reappearance is a massive relief for her sister Lauren (Noone). Lauren is also furious, having assumed Kelly was dead as her younger sibling had never contacted her in that time. As the two women slowly reconcile, suppressed trauma boils to the surface in Lauren and starts to affect her relationship with her husband (Martin McCann) and her job at a massive Amazon-like warehouse. At the same time, Kelly’s behaviour gets increasingly erratic, mirroring her mother who died mysteriously years earlier.
Brady spends the first half of the film piecing together the relationship between the sisters and their mother (Olga Wehrly) through scraps of dialogue and flashbacks. She is adept at little evocative touches like a cassette Lauren and Kelly recorded as girls pretending to present a radio show (a detail recognisable to many people with an ’80s childhood). She also nods to established classics in the prominent use of a red coat that recalls Don’t Look Now, Schindler’s List, and, of course, Little Red Riding Hood (a wolf also appears as a visual motif). We get the sense of the central connections as they are being rebuilt. It is excellent storytelling, at least to begin with.
Rather than one central dramatic event, Wildfire pivots around a sequence in a bar in which the two sisters dance to ‘Gloria’ by Them. It is a point of absolute reconnection for the sisters, and their dervish abandon is the centrifugal force that sends Lauren’s life off its axis. Vibrant beautifully shot and disconcerting in the almost sexual chemistry between the sisters, it is the standout moment of the film. Brady and DP Crystel Fournier use the musical sequence as narrative symbolism in the same way that Céline Sciamma does in both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Girlhood (on which Fournier also acted as cinematographer). The scene also brings the ghosts of the past together in bruising fashion as the sisters come face to face with Gerry (David Pearse), a former paramilitary leader. It is a real pity that everything else that comes after feels a little mundane, veering a little towards miserabilist kitchen-sink melodrama.
Both Gerry and Kelly are uncomfortable artefacts of the Troubles in different ways. Gerry is one of those men who have committed atrocities, but who remain nonchalantly in their communities. He has been granted legitimacy as an inadvertent side effect of the Good Friday Agreement but is not above using his reputation as a weapon of intimidation. Kelly is collateral damage; one of the many left to deal with the fallout of the monstrous actions of those men. She is the daughter of a man killed in a sectarian bombing, and of a woman who never managed to deal with that act. Assailant and victim sharing the same physical and liminal space. No wonder she left.
Dramas featuring big secrets in small towns have almost become a subgenre in their own right and Wildfire indulges in many of these tropes. Include the backdrop of the historically fractious Irish border, and you can guess from where the dark revelations are going to emerge. It remains an impressive debut in many respects, however. Brady directs with a sure hand and coaxes tremendous performances from McGuigan and Noone. The central symbolism of division – geographical, political and familial – is occasionally a blunt instrument, but Wildfire is a potent depiction of old wounds being left to fester. What seeps forth is never pleasant and Brady’s debut spills over with the contemporary uncertainty of the region.
Screened as part of BFI London Film Festival