Grand passions are announced, discussed and exhaustively over-analyzed, but there isn’t enough dramatic or sensual heat in “Nora,” a handsomely produced but prosaic period piece aimed at upscale, literary-savvy auds. Clearly a labor of love for actor Ewan McGregor — co-founder of Natural Nylon Entertainment, one of the international production partners — Pat Murphy’s tony study of James Joyce’s love life might ignite minor controversies here and there because of story’s sexual content. It’s doubtful, however, that notoriety will fuel ticket sales. More likely, “Nora” will fare better as video and cable fare.
Murphy and co-writer Gerard Stembridge adapted their script from Brenda Maddox’s well-received biography of Nora Barnacle, the spirited servant girl who became the lifelong lover, muse and ego wrangler of Irish author James Joyce. “Nora” dramatizes the often stormy relationship between the two strong-willed individuals as rife with petty jealousies, prideful conflicts and harsh betrayals. Fortunately for both parties, the conversations are stimulating — in every sense of the word — and the sex is terrific.
Joyce (McGregor) and Nora (Susan Lynch) meet cute on a Dublin street in 1904. He’s a preening young man with literary ambitions; she’s a resilient young woman who came to the big city to find work as a chambermaid. “Nora?” he responds when he hears her name. “Like in Ibsen?” “What’s Ibsen?” Nora asks, blissfully ignorant of “A Doll’s House.” Joyce is amused by her gumption. He’s also pleased when, on their first date, she enthusiastically masturbates him while they’re huddled together on a dark street.
Instinctively suspicious of Joyce’s snobbish friends, Nora encourages her lover’s critical attitudes about his tradition-bound, religion-dominated homeland, and readily agrees to accompany him on a move to Trieste. In the years that follow, Joyce vacillates between despair and exuberance in his efforts to become a published author. He seeks inspiration from Nora — and, without her approval, transforms an incident from her youth into a key plot element in his greatest short story, “The Dead” — but repeatedly complains about her seeming indifference toward his work. He enjoys her lusty and unself-conscious approach to lovemaking. But he also wonders how many other lovers she has had — and might be planning to have.
They have two children together, yet Joyce remains mistrustful of Nora. Whenever he’s away from her, and sometimes even when they’re together, he unjustly suspects her of having affairs with, among others, his brother Stanislaus (Peter McDonald) and their friend Roberto Prezioso (Roberto Citran). They frequently quarrel, and periodically separate. (During his extended return to Dublin, he opens one of Ireland’s first movie theaters.) By pic’s end, however, they recognize that, for better or worse, they can’t live without each other.
In focusing so tightly on the love-hate, almost sadomasochistic relationship between Joyce and Nora, pic grows repetitive and tests patience. Worse, it often comes across as a portrait of the artist as a selfish whiner.
To his credit, however, McGregor vividly conveys Joyce’s inner torment and anguished insecurities even as the writer appears most petulant and cruel. Without making obvious plays for audience sympathy, McGregor manages to render the exasperating Joyce as something far more complex — and much more forgivable — than a manipulative lout.
By emphasizing her character’s steely spine as much as her frank carnality, Lynch does much to make Nora a worthy soul mate rather than a helpless victim. She and McGregor develop an edgy, erotically charged give-and-take, whether they’re together on camera or linked by intercutting. At one point, the separated lovers communicate by mail, and indulge in the epistolary equivalent of phone sex. The scene avoids silliness only because the actors are so effective and affecting.
Director Murphy stops far short of explicit bedroom gymnastics, but includes enough nudity and suggestive behavior to rankle the easily rankled. McDonald, Citran and Aedin Moloney (as Eva Joyce, James’ sister) offer first-rate support, but their characters are merely background sketches. Lenser Jean-Francois Robin dotes appreciatively on the picturesque Trieste locations, while costumer Consolata Boyle and production designer Alan Macdonald enhance the period flavor.