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Directed by Pat Murphy

Script: Pat Murphy, Gerard Stembridge

Cast: Susan Lynch, Ewan McGregor, Peter McDonald, Andrew Scott, Kate O’Toole

There was a time, when they used to say / That behind every great man, there had to be a great woman. Based loosely on Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora Barnacle, lover and (eventually) wife of noted Irish writer James Joyce, Pat Murphy’s new film is, quite simply, stunning. This is a towering performance by Susan Lynch, whose movie it is, as she renders every nuance of a woman of that time, who dared to be different. But new depths are also revealed to the acting ability of Ewan ‘Big Tadger’ McGregor, showing him capable of hanging back and not hogging the limelight, when necessary. Peter McDonald also extends his range, as James’ long-suffering brother, Stanislaus. He is given one of the key lines in the film when, on arriving in Trieste, he tells Nora: ‘Jem is a genius; it would be a shame if he didn’t become all that he can be.’ Which calls to mind another line, from another wag: ‘James Joyce was a artist; he told us so himself.’




There is something a bit suspect, even cheesy, about making an historical movie, with the attendant dangers of falling into heritage industry, costume drama crap. But Pat Murphy circumvents this potential pitfall. She doesn’t operate often (her last feature, Anne Devlin, appeared in 1984, with her debut Maeve a few years before that), but when she does, the results are always spectacular. Yes, the costumes and design are wonderful, but the most striking thing about this reading of the material is how well it captures the prevailing religious, political and social forces of the time, not in a heavy-handed way, but enough so it hurts.
It is almost impossible to imagine today what Joyce and Nora were up against, how high the stakes were and how great the risks they took, both before and after their elopement. In other words, it is difficult to conceive of the sheer balls it took to commit to a peripatetic life of experimental and innovative writing and, for a long time, penury; or indeed, as the film’s title highlights, to commit to a man who wanted to do this, without even offering the security of a wedding ring.
But Pat Murphy succeeds in evoking this atmosphere. There is the snobbery of Oliver St John Gogarty (‘The bard is no snob’ he remarks on learning Joyce is going out with a chambermaid), and the jealousy Joyce suffered from when, back in Dublin to open the Volta cinema, old pal Cosgrove taunts him with the insinuation that Nora was unfaithful to him, the scenario around which Joyce’s only venture as a dramatist, Exiles, is based.
McGregor portrays not only his character’s iron-willed determination, but also his vulnerability. He also shows himself to be a useful guitarist and tenor, when he and Lynch duet on ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. Lynch is wonderful as the untutored but innately intelligent, spirited young woman from Galway, as she supports the young writer who is tormented by the fear that his work will never be published. She anchors his instabilities and insecurities, as the couple’s relationship is bonded by a deep, sexual love. Indeed, this is one of the great love stories of the last century, and if there is anything as vulgar as a message here (and in Joyce’s work), it is that sexual love is the only thing which makes this godawful life worthwhile. As with Edna O’Brien’s recently published biography of Joyce, it is implied that what underlay the confidence needed for the seismic shift in Joyce’s aesthetics and practices of writing between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses was the sense of rootedness Nora gave him. Murphy’s painterly sense of composition and framing is outstanding, particularly noticeable in a scene like the one where the couple fare passagiata on the pier in Trieste.
If there is a disappointment, it is that the film ends in 1914, with the family’s last visit to Galway, and so doesn’t follow them into middle age, thus eschewing the opportunity of showing the growth of the writer’s reputation, the tragedy of their daughter Lucia’s schizophrenia, or Nora’s increasing toughness and resilience. It must have been hard for a filmmaker like Murphy to forego the chance to film in Paris, but presumably, at 96 minutes, it was felt that the film was long enough. Maybe budgets were tight too.
At the press show, Pat Murphy told us that this project took ten years to make. I can only say that it was well worth the wait, and the hard work that went into realising the dream. Nora will open this year’s Dublin Film Festival, and goes on general release on April 21. If you miss it, you will miss one of the most marvellous full length Irish features of recent years.

First published in Film Ireland









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