LFF 2020 film review: Wildfire
Cathy Brennan | On 16, Oct 2020
Director: Cathy Brady
Cast: Nika McGuigan, Kate Dickie, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann
Watch Wildfire online in the UK: London Film Festival
Wildfire is streaming online as part of the 2020 London Film Festival. For more on how the festival works, click here.
Years after vanishing, Kelly (Nika McGuigan, who passed away last year) returns to live with her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) in a town on that scar of a border which runs across Ireland. Now married, and working at a warehouse, Lauren’s life takes a progressively downward turn as she attempts to cling to the sister she’s afraid of losing again.
A shared memory of their mother’s suicide, the nature of which is kept largely ambiguous until the end, generates an unbreakable bond between Lauren and Kelly; a bond that appears to be destructive to both women. It’s heavily intimated throughout Wildfire that the impulsive Kelly suffers from some form of mental illness, and that her presence is unhealthy for the relatively composed Lauren.
Writer-director Cathy Brady’s debut vacillates between various narrative modes that will disorient any viewer attempting to discern greater meaning from it. There are gestures towards political allegory and fairytale symbolism through the respective use of archive footage from The Troubles during the opening credits and the occasional appearance of a wolf (real or imagined, it’s left up to the viewer to decide).
Wildfire sets up these various plates and expects the viewer to keep them spinning in the back of their mind. This gives the impression of a muddled film grasping for profundity but with nothing concrete to say. It can be frustrating, but it’s more interesting than the kind of film about working-class characters where sparse symbolism feeds into a neatly packaged message. The overwhelming and oftentimes alienating nature of Wildfire’s narrative ambitions immerses the viewer in the increasingly frayed headspace of the two protagonists. Much of the symbolism is relegated to the background because it serves to colour the central relationship at the heart of the film.
Mainstream conversations individualise and medicalise conditions that fall under the category of mental health, while neglecting the impact of our shared social environment on the development of those conditions in the first place. Kelly is subjected to violence three times in the film, once by a female customs officer who forces her to strip before being let into the country at the beginning of the film. This instance of state violence is just one example of how the wider world casually fosters mental instability among women like Emily.
Both women are introduced against the backdrop of a neoliberal world. Kelly is first seen on a ferry full of trucks delivering goods, while Lauren is shown scanning cardboard boxes in a warehouse – not dissimilar to an Amazon fulfilment centre, which has come to symbolise the soul-destroying nature of work in a time of globalised capitalism. Early on, Kelly’s assault at the hands of a man in a van is filmed by a group of cackling teenage boys. The resulting video is then laughed at by Lauren’s co-workers, who stumble upon it on Facebook. The film succeeds at conveying the social hell-scape that neoliberalism has wrought, an environment utterly incompatible with the sisters’ desperate need to work through the childhood trauma that has shaped their lives.
The deluge of on-the-nose symbolism melts away during an extended sequence midway through the film in which Kelly and Lauren drunkenly dance in a pub to Van Morrison’s rendition of Gloria. Uninhibited and confrontational, McGuigan and Noone express a wild and largely inscrutable relationship that perfectly captures a truth at the heart of Cathy Brady’s film. Wildfire is a messy, frustrating story, and that’s probably the only way it could have been.
Wildfire is available to stream on BFI Player from 8.30pm on Saturday 10th October until 8.30pm on 13th October. Book a ticket here.