The Movie Waffler BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - WILDFIRE | The Movie Waffler

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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - WILDFIRE

wildfire review
Having disappeared for a year, a troubled woman returns to her home in Northern Ireland, rekindling her intense bond with her sister.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Cathy Brady

Starring: Nika McGuigan, Kate Dickie, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, David Pearse

wildfire poster



We have an oft-used expression in Ireland - "Ah sure, it'll be grand." You'll hear it expressed by every Irish person who realises they have an extra piece left over after assembling a flatpack wardrobe. That piece is probably important, but feck it, you've put the thing together and you're not going to take it apart now. The result is a wobbly wardrobe that inevitably collapses a year later. "Ah sure, it'll be grand" perfectly encapsulates the Irish mentality of ignoring a problem, allowing it to fester until it grows to the point where you're forced to confront it.

As you can imagine, we're not great when it comes to dealing with grief, trauma and other mental health issues. "Ah sure, have a pint, it'll be grand." No wonder Kelly (Nika McGuigan), the troubled protagonist of writer/director Cathy Brady's Wildfire, runs away from her home on the Northern side of the Irish border. Selfishly, she didn't tell her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), that she was leaving, so it's no surprise that when she returns home out of the blue a year later she isn't immediately embraced with open arms.

wildfire review

After the initial anger, Lauren welcomes her sister, inviting her to stay in the home she shares with her husband Sean (Martin McCann). Childhood memories are rekindled, but so too is the legacy of the loss of their parents. Their father was killed in a terrorist bombing. Their mother is believed to have killed herself soon after, though there are suspicions she may have been murdered, having confronted her husband's killers. Regardless, as is the Irish way, it's all been swept under the carpet. Lauren and Kelly are expected to get on with their lives, even while the men responsible for the loss of their parents live in their community, absolved of their crimes as part of the Good Friday Agreement (can you imagine the UK government allowing Islamic terrorists to return to their communities?). Kelly is the spare piece Lauren has been ignoring, but the wardrobe is set to collapse in spectacular fashion.


The mentally troubled yet free-spirited female protagonist is nothing new, but usually it's a male lover who is charged with their care, and such mental issues are often problematically presented as "sexy" (Betty Blue being the prime example of this). Wildfire takes the trope and sets in within a sibling relationship rather than a romantic or sexual pairing, but there is a certain platonic romance to the love Lauren and Kelly clearly feel for one another. When they eventually let out their frustrations by engaging in a wild dancefloor stomp to Them's 'Gloria', there's an erotic charge to the ritual that borders on incestual. With the world around them telling them to shake off the past and move on, Lauren and Kelly realise that they're on their own, that nobody else can fully understand the grief they've been left to process.

wildfire review

Brady does a good job of portraying the new Northern Ireland while acknowledging the many ghosts that linger from the not too distant past. When an Eastern European worker at the Amazon-esque distribution centre that employs Lauren mocks her boss's limp, she's informed by her co-workers that the woman lost her leg in a bombing. The distribution centre is itself built on the site of a market that was torn apart by a bomb. It's the stuff of Poltergeist, but it's all too real.


One of the film's more tender moments sees Lauren and Kelly take a dip in a river that straddles the border. The two women recall how as children they would lie in the river, their floating bodies present in two nations at once. Wildfire straddles a border itself, one between gritty social realism and magic realist melodrama. It succeeds as an exemplary model of the former, but in its final act it goes off the rails and may even provoke some unintentional laughs with a misjudged and unearned late beat involving a possible message from beyond the grave. Had the film climaxed with the aforementioned ritualistic bonding dance, it would be one of the year's most striking directorial debuts, but there's a half hour still to go after that point, and none of it is as satisfying as the powder keg drama that preceded it.

wildfire review

Wildfire is made more poignant by the knowledge of McGuigan's untimely passing with cancer while the film was in pre-production. On the evidence here, the disease has robbed us of a great Irish talent. There's impressive work done across the board here, even if the movie doesn't ultimately hold together, and Wildfire is an example of how far Irish cinema has come in terms of quality over the last decade. As far as the future of Irish filmmaking is concerned, I really do think it'll be grand.

Wildfire plays on BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on October 13th.

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