Cathy Brady’s debut feature opens with newsreel footage chronicling the Troubles, through to the peace process, up to more recent concerns regarding Brexit and the hard border. These issues are the political backdrop for Wildfire, as well as what shapes the tragic fate of the family at its centre who are reckoning with their fractured past.
Wildfire starts promisingly, with beautiful crisp cinematography, and a compelling performance from the late Nika McGuigan as Kelly. Returning home on the ferry, she is frisked by customs officers who treat her with suspicion. We soon learn that she has been reported as missing, and is finally returning home to her worried sister Lauren’s (Nora-Jane Noone) household right next to the border.
Both sisters are haunted by not only the mystery surrounding their flighty mother’s death, but, more intriguingly, to what extent they are similar to her. Are their genetics some kind of destiny? Is there some transgenerational trauma at play? Indeed, the whole community seems to have a shadow hanging over it as a result of paramilitary bombings. There’s much secrecy as well its attendant gossiping. The way Brady gradually discloses the pieces of her puzzle is absorbing.
Unfortunately, this early promise is mired by some awkward later scenes in which altercations escalate in a clunky, histrionic manner in order to ratchet up the drama. While the performances are deeply felt, the film is too earnest by half and some of the political references feel a bit shoehorned in.
Still, this script shoots from the hip in unpredictable ways, and there are some stirring moments of visual poetry – most notably, a bracing dance number between the two sisters and the recurring motif of a wolf. Much like its heroine, this film has a bocekty quality that can be winning, if a little unfocused. The film is capable of being understated but it decides to go too maudlin towards the end. Having demonstrated a patience and poise, Wildfire then overreaches with scenes that are supposed to be intense but feel implausible.
“Much like its heroine, this film has a bocekty quality that can be winning, if a little unfocused.”
There is, nevertheless, great potential shown in this evocative film. It’ll be interesting to see what Brady does next. I found certain images lingering with me long after the credits. But it is Nika McGuigan’s performance that has the most staying power. How sad that this will be her last performance and we won’t be able to see the great things she would no doubt have gone on to do. Rory Kiberd