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Aidan Monaghan/The BFI London Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Wildfire (2020)

Kelly (the late Nika McGuigan) is obviously trouble. She is a foot passenger on the ferry into Belfast, so visibly rough-looking that her bags are searched. The border patrol come back with her passport and the news that she was reporting missing over a year ago. Kelly squares her shoulders and says that they can’t keep her, and hitchhikes her way across the country to a front door. It’s opened by Sean (Martin McCann), her brother-in-law, who is not perfectly thrilled to see her. But he welcomes her in, and goes to pick up Lauren (Nora Jane Noone) from work with the news, even though she begins shaking with fear when she sees him. He reassures her that all is well and brings her home. Well, of course, being a relative term.

How the sisters manage to find a path forward, and whether they can do that together, is the push behind “Wildfire,” an unusual Northern Irish film that manages – just – to find a fresh local story to tell. The sisters are not entirely on their own; they have Sean, though he expresses more concern for what the neighbors will think than he does for Lauren; and they have Aunt Veronica (a very good Kate Dickie), who goes to some pains to remind the girls just how much it is she’s done for them. Over the course of the movie, both the nature of Veronica’s sacrifice and the price the sisters paid for it becomes clear.

The cleverest thing about writer-director Cathy Brady’s script is that the sisters’ struggles are firmly contextualized within their (unnamed, but clearly based on Omagh) hometown. Lauren works in a distribution center, under a manager who walks with a limp, and there’s a scathing early scene where one of the immigrant co-workers has to be told what everyone else in the warehouse already knows. When Kelly tries to stop some littering and gets her nose broken for her trouble, a video taken by laughing passers-by is on the town’s Facebook page for everyone’s amusement by the time they get home. And later on, when the sisters are on a tear one afternoon and start chatting with some men in the pub, it becomes exactly clear just how much pain there is bubbling just under the surface.

It’s like that in most small towns, of course, but Northern Ireland’s violent history and the way in which that history was managed means the pressure is higher than average. While it is never stated explicitly, Kelly’s inability to cope with it in the socially sanctioned way was what sent her on the road. Lauren had Sean to keep her steady, even when she was incapacitated with grief. It’s very interesting how Mr. McCann plays a man who loves his partner, within very defined limits. And it’s interesting how those limits, and knowing how to stay within them, enabled Lauren to do so comparatively well. But Kelly’s return and Lauren’s adamant insistence on putting her sister first makes all the pressure impossible to ignore.

“Wildfire” is not flawless, of course. The opening montage of the Troubles’ newsreel highlights wasn’t needed to contextualize the plot, and footage of the Omagh bombing is, unfortunately, a crass cliché by now. Both the girls’ childhood home and Sean and Lauren’s house are too middle-class for the background the sisters describe. And things clearly haven’t improved all that much financially: Kelly regularly goes swimming in a nearby loch in her bra and underwear. The question of what she did to survive while she was away is never answered, which is a surprise due to her willingness to let Lauren fight her battles. The battles are mostly with Aunt Veronica, which seems a little unfair, and it’s a shame the screenplay never quite reveals what caused the bad feeling between the three of them. Ms. Dickie’s part is on a continuum with her outstanding work in Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road,” which is also about a woman’s reckoning with an unwelcome return from her past. Finally, Ms. McGuigan and Ms. Noone are a little too old for their parts, but they absolutely nail the feeling you get from a lot of people in a lot of in small Northern Irish towns: They hate it there, but they know they’ll never be able to manage in places where no one knows their story.

All that said, Ms. Brady does an excellent job of showing how the past can haunt the present and how little it takes for the present to be overwhelmed. Ms. McGuigan (who died of cancer last year) underplays Kelly’s off-ness, which is the right and tougher choice, although her nervy facial expressions and constant physical discomfort do her talking for her. Ms. Noone is outstanding in her easier part portraying a woman who has closed herself off as a coping mechanism and, when she finds herself opening up despite herself, completely unafraid to do the right things. Her scene in the H.R. office, where she understands an unpleasant truth just from how two colleagues momentarily avert their gazes, is a masterclass is everyday self-respect, with a terrific kiss-off line to boot. Lauren’s immediate and unblinking willingness to shoulder Kelly’s burdens as her own makes her a heroine, whether anyone appreciates it or not. “Wildfire” makes that kind of courage clear, which is its own reward.

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