In the months leading up to the UK’s departure from the European Union, troubled Kelly (the late Nika McGuigan) returns to her and her sister Lauren’s (Nora-Jane Noone) Northern Irish hometown after disappearing a year ago, unearthing a decades-old truth about the death of their mother.
Broken borders abound in director Cathy Brady’s feature debut. The opening scene sees Kelly traversing two physical borders: the Irish sea as she crosses over on the ferry, then across the Irish border from the Republic to the North. As she makes her journey, and throughout the film, news presenters fretfully report on the prospect of a new hard border in Ireland as the Brexit nightmare hardens into reality.
Borders divide time as well as space; contemporary Brexit woes are juxtaposed with the Troubles of the past, and we learn that the sisters lost a brother in a deadly IRA bombing, as well as their mother over whose suicide both Lauren and Kelly are in denial. The site of that bombing is now an Amazon-esque fulfilment centre where Lauren works. Younger staff seemingly have no idea of what their workplace in built upon, but the evidence lingers, including one co-worker, briefly glimpsed, who lost a leg in the attack.
Brady shows us in these moments how memory, trauma and place are intertwined. Wildfire’s cinematography is subtle and understated, with DP Crystel Fournier using a palette of muted colours and ordinary locations. But supporting the visuals’ ostensible ordinariness sits psychological instability and fracture, breaking through the surface in several moments that border on magical realism. In one scene, Kelly manically decides to dig up Lauren’s back garden at five in the morning to plant vegetables; a literal unearthing of what lies beneath. But the metaphor is also hopeful, offering a stronger alternative to the tamping down of the past under a pristine, easily broken surface. Tellingly, it is Lauren’s impatient partner Sean (Martin McCann) who demands that Kelly restore the lawn. The lake outside the sisters’ childhood home which sits neatly on the North-South border, and in which they secretly go swimming at night, promises another portal to the past, though one fraught with danger. Meanwhile, a wolf inexplicably appears to Kelly at extreme moments of emotional vulnerability, driving her back to her sister.
Kelly’s vulnerability is made all the more poignant in the knowledge that McGuigan died shortly after shooting, to whom the film is dedicated. In its study of tragedy, Wildfire does not draw straight lines between its personal narrative and the broader political and social contexts. Instead, the film uses the Troubles and Brexit to frame its understanding of the past and the present. Brady suggests a liminal psychological space – much like the liminal political space that Brexit created – through which Lauren and Kelly’s traumas move and, perhaps, can be understood.