Generating some buzz through last year’s festival circuit, Wildfire comes to cinemas followed by sadness both on and off screen. Just as the sisters in the story live with loss in their lives, a dedication at the end alludes to the passing of star Danika McGuigan shortly after the film’s completion, aged just 33. There’s always an extra level of poignancy watching an actor’s final performance, but the debut of writer/director Cathy Brady offers a platform to show her brilliance.
Set in Northern Ireland, Wildfire tells the story of Kelly (McGuigan), who returns to her small town a year after going missing. She arrives on the doorstep of Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), her overworked and overwrought sister. Born within a year of each other, the pair are overjoyed to be reunited, despite Kelly’s mental health issues raising question marks over her future. Haunted by the mysterious death of their mother years ago, Lauren does her best to support Kelly without scaring her away again. However, secrets from the past force both to confront their demons.
Filmed modestly, with the characters faces illuminated by streetlamps or bar signs, Brady puts intriguing clues in relatively mundane scenes. There’s whispering in the breakroom of Lauren’s Amazon-like workplace, while unthinking locals tell a jittery Kelly how much she looks like her “Mammy”. Through clever storytelling, it’s clear that the spectre of grief looms over the women every single day, as it does many other characters. Just as their mother’s death is an unspoken pain, so to The Troubles affect people and communities years on, with loaded sentences implying just how much was taken.
Innuendo also surrounds Kelly, who the filmmakers are careful not to diagnose. There’s pleas for her to “talk to someone” from Lauren’s concerned husband (Martin McCann), and unkind barbs from locals, but the story is much more about the siblings’ unspoken understanding. Noone fills Lauren with concern for Kelly, but never frustration or anger. The scenes where the pair are allowed to be alone and revert to their childhood bond are glorious, and both actors feel comfortable around each other.
McGuigan has the more interesting role, trying to express or supress her trauma in different ways, such as digging up Lauren’s garden in the middle of the night with the idea of making a vegetable farm. Kelly is always shaky, but never reverts to scenery chewing, allowing you to peer deeper into what’s going on in her head.
Rolling to a stop rather than ending with a bang, Wildfire is an understated British drama that perfectly captures the power of things left unsaid.
Wildfire is in cinemas from 3rd September