It is always reassuring, when watching a film, to feel as though you are in safe hands. By this I mean that from the first frame, you get a strong sense of invasion in that the director at work is about to take you on a sincere, controlled journey that will evoke deep emotion. This is exactly how I felt upon viewing the opening of Wildfire, the feature debut from the writer/director to watch that is Cathy Brady. A collaboration of political tension, deep family bonds and a realist approach to the treatment of those with mental illness all make this socio-political tale a riveting watch. I would say that I perhaps did not emotionally react as strongly as intended, but a chord was truly struck with help from the incredible central performances.
Set in a border town of Northern Ireland, Wildfire follows the rekindling of a close relationship between sisters Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) and Kelly (played by the late Nika McGuigan), the latter whose whereabouts have been unknown for the last two years. Their anticipated reunion naturally results in painful memories being re-lived, as the sisters learn how to address their mother’s passing two years prior. There is a strong sense of realism throughout – Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank comes to mind-, in terms of the procession of emotions and how grounded the story’s content is.
On the surface, Wildfire is a pure story of sisterhood but on a deeper level, it touches on political tension in Ireland, past and present. Ireland’s history with shifts in politics and the rise of protests – whether between Ireland and England, or nationalists against police or troops -, often referred to as ‘The Troubles’, is part of the background for this tale. Not just in terms of the sisters’ nationality, but the death of their father, too. I have family friends that are still scarred to this day over some of these attacks that took place, and I feel the topic surrounding addressing your past has never been so prevalent. I feel that the consolidation of these elements allows the spectator to mutually internalise both family and national heritage.
Whether it is due to our own actions or actions of others, traumatic events from the past can cause a great deal of stress and discomfort if not dealt with directly. This is something that I feel is well portrayed in the breakfast scene with Kelly and Lauren, in which Lauren demands that Kelly leaves because she is so distraught that she has been alive this whole time without staying in touch as promised. Her immediate reaction is to act out from a place of pain, and moments later they reminisce celebrating Christmas in July with their mother. To observe the reignition of their bond is intoxicating. They have no control over the tragedies they have experienced, but they can choose to move forward, stronger together.
The area that Brady chose to set her film in has one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe, and also one of the biggest hubs for people who are prescribed antidepressants. With this in mind, Kelly’s situation, and to some extent, Lauren’s is an embodiment of these conversations that must be had. “It’s this fucking town!”, Lauren yells, not long before her boss informs here that her recent outbursts have made other employees feel “uncomfortable”. People turn their backs on the mentally ill every day, the stiff-upper-lip culture that has plagued the UK is reaching dangerous heights. Lauren’s husband Sean (Martin McCann) reinforces the ‘unstable woman’ stereotype often amplified in film, with his wording surrounding discussions about Kelly.
The only help that is offered to Kelly is for her to be sent to see someone, as if she is someone else’s problem in which to be dealt with. What they really should be doing is focusing on how their attitude and behaviour can impact her, in the here and now, in the comfort of her sister’s home. Lauren actively refuses this referral, which made the commentary on emotional instability far richer for me when watching. It is a complex conversation, but it is one that must be had.
Wildfire is a touching piece that explores grief, the mistreatment of those who have suffered and political unification. The tonal shifts are effortlessly conveyed, it is as full of heart and it is of sorrow. The true driving force behind the film is the central performances – Noone and McGuigan make an electrifying duo, both their characters fully fleshed out and painfully real. During a time of intense political uncertainty, Wildfire’s message is inspiring, expressing that we are stronger when we act together. We must address the past to heal, and move forward.
In dire times, people need support from their close ones and communities – hatred breeds hatred. We must look forward with understanding.