As candid and intimate as Nuala O’Faolain bestselling memoir “Are You Somebody?,” captivating, well-paced docu “Nuala” paints a vivid picture of the Irish author/TV producer/columnist/cultural commentator’s remarkable life, bountiful talent and uncompromising death. Although it was made for Irish television, this warts-and-all biopic, deftly helmed by Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan, has the style and substance to carry niche theatrical dates in places where O’Faolain’s writing is known. Pic reps quality programming for international broadcasters and cinematheques.
Mixing interviews with friends, colleagues and relatives with choice archival footage and photos, the pic considers O’Faolain (1940-2008) within the context of her time and family history. It shows how her ferocious intellect and independent mind allowed her to rise above her circumstances and develop into a revered public figure, popular writer and woman who experienced life in a more profound way than most. Yet she was no saint; her friends acknowledge that she was restless, needy, overly emotional and sometimes cruel. She also had problems with alcohol.
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O’Faolain’s close chum, Irish radio host Marian Finucane (also one of the film’s producers), serves as narrator and provides an empathetic onscreen presence, while also prodding the interviewees to a frankness that the author would appreciate.
O’Faolain came of age when Ireland was an insular, male-dominated society. She was one of nine children in an extremely dysfunctional family; her glamorous, philandering father covered high society for the Irish Times, while her alcoholic mother neglected the house and kids. Despite her father’s hefty salary, the family lived in poverty while he shared his expensive lifestyle with a string of mistresses, including his wife’s sister.
As O’Faolain’s own sisters attest, this upbringing left her with a love of books and classical music, but also full of insecurities and contradictions. Although she was heterosexual (during her time as a BBC producer she counted three of London’s leading male intellectuals among her conquests), her longest-lasting relationship, nearly 15 years, was with the Irish feminist-journalist-playwright Nell McCafferty.
When O’Faolain published the first volume of her memoirs in 1996, all Ireland was riveted by her reckless honesty. The pic includes a clip of her on the country’s main talkshow, questioned about all the men in her life; her brisk reply, that there were different reasons for all that sex, “including for the exercise,” typifies her disarming wit and charm. The book proved a major bestseller in Europe and in the U.S., where Nuala eventually moved to enjoy a late-life love affair with New York City.
O’Faolain maintained candor throughout her life. Given mere weeks to live after a surprise cancer diagnosis in 2008, she appeared on Finucane’s radio program to discuss her impending death; the audio from that broadcast is perhaps the most affecting part of the docu.
Helmers Farrelly and O’Callaghan, Irish expats based in Gotham, give the film a cinematic beauty and breadth through visuals of the places O’Faolain lived. Whenever they can, they allow the author to be a presence, frequently using her voice (she recorded “Are You Somebody?” as an audiobook) and her incredible fluency with language, making the onscreen quotations from her final emails all the more poignant.
Production values, from the glowingly lit, intimately framed interviews (lensed by Kate McCullough) to the sound to Michael Fleming’s music, are tops.