In an unnamed town on the border between Northern and Southern Ireland, a missing sister returns home and a family scarred by the traumas of their upbringing are forced to reconcile themselves with the aftermath, in Cathy Brady’s fierce, assured debut Wildfire.
When Kelly (Nika McGuigan) hitches a ride with a lorry driver to the edges of her hometown, she asks his name. “Christopher” he says, to which she replies happily “Thanks Saint” before hopping down from the cab, the Saint Christopher pendent swinging around her neck. She has been missing for a year. The painful, stilted reunion with her older sister comes later when Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) comes home from a nightshift at the Amazon-type warehouse on the outskirts of town. It is marked with a tension that neither of them can or want to face.
The ghosts that haunt the sisters loom large — their mother’s death that may or may not have been a suicide lingers — brought into sharp relief as Kelly and Lauren look through old belongings. A taped recording of an old “radio show” the sisters created, shared laughter over memories of the house being painted pink are a moment of rare happiness that are so easily shattered in the next second as the bond between Kelly and Lauren is fragile.
The problems of their familial history aren’t the only traumas that underpin the sisters’ existence. Brady opens the film with a montage of archival news footage: buildings and cars blown apart during the Troubles, the joy and relief of the Good Friday Agreement and finally, devastatingly, news reports about the potential reignition of sectarian tensions in the aftermath of Brexit. Both Kelly and Lauren were relatively young when peace was achieved in Northern Ireland but the inherited trauma runs through the film like a deep infection passed down between generations, but unable to be drawn out as it is perhaps too painful to be released. Crystel Fournier’s cinematography captures the film in a permanent twilight — unfriendly, cold grey skies drain the colours from the screen, or artificial orange streetlights bring an unnatural half-life to the streets – tricolours and union flags hanging limply from them depending on what side of the border they reside; the wounds of the Troubles still plain for everyone to see.
At the heart of the film is the performances of Noone and McGuigan; raw and intense, capturing the indescribable impact of trauma on the adult body but in two very different ways. Noone as Lauren, the older sister, is contained in herself, almost withdrawn to the point of isolation at work, struggling with her relationship with her partner Sean (Martin McCann) after normality is disrupted by Kelly’s return. Her mother’s final words — to look after her sister — linger on as she fiercely protects Kelly from ridicule and the pressure from Sean to “conform”, to not give the street “something else to talk about”. The small town politics — divorced from that of the Troubles — are simply another reminder of their differences. McGuigan, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2019, has an openness that is almost painful, a naivety that underlines her performance as a young woman who is lost. This vulnerability inspires the need for her to be protected, this troubled yet vibrant young woman who is too much for this close-minded society.
Wildfire is, for me, the best film of London Film Festival. It is bold in its approach towards history, inter-generational trauma and the delicate balances of life that can be so easily broken. Brady’s bold, confident and exciting debut is arguably a post-Brexit period piece that will leave you aching for more.
Wildfire screened at the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival between October 10th and 13th
by Rose Dymock