There are troubles of the familial kind at the center of “Wildfire,” writer-director Cathy Brady’s gloomy debut feature set in a border town of Northern Ireland. Then there are “The Troubles,” the decades-long conflict between the region’s unionists and nationalists, the aftermath of which gives Brady’s straightforward and overstretched story its faint backdrop. Throughout, the filmmaker braids her thematic strands together, with the two sisters leading her yarn reconciling with their traumatic past that has been entangled with the province’s thorny history in more ways than one. But Brady’s ambition to marry the sociopolitical with the intimately personal doesn’t really lead to a convincing emotional payoff, despite her assured style and two powerhouse performances by Nora-Jane Noone and Nika McGuigan as the siblings.
In the role of Kelly, a long-missing woman who mysteriously turns up at her childhood town two years after her disappearance, McGuigan leaves an affecting, even haunting trace, projecting a character in deep distress and turmoil with such precision. (The actor sadly passed away from cancer last year at the age of 33, a harrowing reality that inevitably charges her performance with unspeakable sorrow.) As Laura, Noone beautifully counters McGuigan’s chaotic aura through her restraint and stoicism, establishing palpable chemistry with her co-star.
Unfortunately, the material doesn’t offer the duo much to play with beyond the memories of a deceased mother fed to the viewer in drips, with the conditions surrounding her death lingering as a mystery of diminishing intrigue for a while. The obvious visual metaphors repeatedly signaling notions such as reunion and separation — of both the geographical and generational sort — also don’t help the matters with their on-the-nose inelegance. Still, the leads’ commitment lends the film a sense of momentum. We learn that Laura, a hardworking factory employee, had put most of her life on hold upon Kelly’s sudden vanishing. When her husband abruptly turns up at her workplace with the news of Kelly’s return, Laura’s whitened face and teary eyes say it all: She has been silently preparing for the worst possible outcome all this time.
The personalities of the finally reunited sisters — so close in age and appearance that they’re known as “the Irish twins” — clash severely at first when they start living under the same roof again. Kelly is hotheaded, spontaneous and suffering from some form of mental illness. The wasteful breakfast she cooks one morning, and the garden she decides to completely redo in the middle of one night, suggest as much. Meanwhile, Laura is practical, cautious and duty-driven. But the sisters still manage to reclaim their mutual groove swiftly, splitting the difference of their contrasts as two adversary territories.
Nighttime swims in the neighboring river through which the Irish border passes, drunken nights at a local pub — with a deftly choreographed, touching dance scene between the duo — and afternoon walks in town create a false sense of security in Laura. She noticeably starts dialing up her wild side despite the protests of her disapproving husband, ultimately coming to a screeching halt when red flags surrounding Kelly crop up again.
Brady’s chief argument with “Wildfire” is that people can’t heal and initiate a healthy restart unless they face and learn from the past. She plays with this thesis for a while, but ultimately, her thinly-spread tale starts running on empty, confusing misery and melancholy for depth. There are simply too many secrets, too many scores to settle between the sisters and the gossipy, unsympathetic townsfolk. And ultimately, none of it feels weighty enough to earn the viewer’s patience.
Skillfully blending stark elements of kitchen sink dramas with vivid surrealist touches, Brady proves more gifted as a director, using light, shadows and colors — especially red, with a central old red coat passed on to the sisters from their mom — to dress up her narrative. Meanwhile, cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s eye maintains a graceful fluidity, making use of both intimacy and negative space to augment the film’s themes. If only “Wildfire” could match all the visual panache on display with an equal amount of substance.