Director Cathy Brady opens Wildfire with a reel of archival footage that addresses the Northern Irish troubles and the impact of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the new tensions on the border brought about by Brexit. Factionalism and loyalty end up playing a central role in a story that, minus a handful of moments, doesn’t embed itself deeply in this history of political turmoil. Instead, it is almost always in the background, an ever present reminder of division and hostility that drives the tension of Brady’s script. The story focuses on the intense bond between two estranged sisters, who can very easily send the other reeling but whose love for each other carves out their own private echo chamber, where they can block out the rest of the world.
Kelly (Nika McGuigan, who tragically passed away before the film’s release) returns home after a year of being on the missing persons list, and being presumed dead. Her arrival is a shock to her sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), whose initial hostility is replaced by rekindled affection as the pair rebuild their relationship. But questions surrounding what exactly happened to the pair’s deceased mother, and what Kelly’s arrival is doing to Lauren’s own state of mind, drive an increasingly large wedge between the sisters and those around them.
Before the sisters completely open up to each other, a lot of unspoken regret and hostility boils over in unpredictable spurts of resentment. At first this is aimed at one another, but soon Kelly and Lauren end up feeling like their whole worlds are against them. Lauren in particular becomes increasingly stubborn, overloaded and frustrated as she defends her sister. The film can’t quite tease out in full the significance of the Northern Irish social backdrop to the pair’s story, but it does serve as a reminder of both how – on a national and personal level – a disturbed past continues to reverberate into the present day.
Both McGuigan and Noone make for very strong leads. McGuigan captures a kind of estrangement that even when close to her sister makes her feel far away in the early stages, and she masterfully bridges that distance step by step as the film moves forward. Noone meanwhile paints an increasing picture of anger and disenchantment as her life disassembles itself around her, all to keep Kelly close. The pair never lull you into a false sense of security and capture the transitioning relationship between them down to the last detail.
Brady has managed to make a film that, while not as moving as it perhaps could be, is nonetheless a powerful and at times shocking statement about the strength of family ties. It is a highly capable effort for a feature debut, a depiction of a harsh reality littered with morsels of what could easily have been had things played out differently. This realism, however, is not quite sustained until the end, descending into a near Thelma and Louise situation that is too sudden to feel like a natural way for the story to go. Even so, if you ever needed a testimony to the power of sisterhood, Wildfire can prove to be a searing reminder.
Wildfire screened at London Film Festival 10 October 2020