Nora (2000)

D: Pat Murphy
S: Ewan McGregor, Susan Lynch

For the first three decades of the twentieth century, James Joyce was reviled in Ireland. Some considered him (if they considered him at all, for few had even read his work) an irredeemable pervert and pornographer, a proponent and purveyor of the evils of modernism which the Pope himself had decreed all clergy should take an oath against in 1910. By the end of the same century and now the beginning of the next, Joyce's image appears on Irish currency. He has entered the hallowed canon of great Irish artists and even his wilful abandonment of the country is seen as integral to and characteristic of his genuine Irish spirit. It is to director Pat Murphy's credit that her film based on the 1988 biography of his long-time partner Nora Barnacle restores some of Joyce's perverted passion. Yes there are the garden-variety moments of artistic angst, and Joyce as a young man intones the usual 'no-one understands my work' lines and drowns his sorrows in alcohol like a true Irish bard. But what the film makes clear is the importance and intensity of his relationship with and passion for Nora throughout the turbulent first years of the century leading to the publication of Dubliners. She herself is a vital force, a creative, eloquent, and emotional being who is central to his life as more than just a muse or an abstract 'woman behind the man'. She and Joyce are both real, breathing, physical presences, and Murphy makes this clear in as visceral terms as the Irish cinema has ever seen. Among the moments we see of their relationship are scenes of Joyce masturbating in the Volta projection box to one of Nora's pornographic letters and her doing likewise to one of his, scenes of wild, almost animalistic sex between the two on the streets of Dublin and in a rented apartment in Trieste, scenes where the possessive, paranoid Joyce screams obscenities at both Nora and others, particularly an Italian gentleman whom Joyce suspects, or perhaps even hopes, has had an affair with her. Respectable it is not, believable it is, and certainly dramatic.

This is a real surprise from co-writer and director Murphy, for whom the project has been a labour of love for almost as long as Neil Jordan was developing Michael Collins. She has not made a film since 1983. The project has been in the offing since Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora came out in 1988. It was only in the last few years that it finally made it from limbo to the screen with the aid of producer Tiernan McBride, and, indeed, co-producer/star Ewan McGregor. Her first two films, Maeve and Anne Devlin were important contributions to the new Irish realist cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s, an era of gloomy introspection which (thankfully) came to an end in the mid 1990s. Anne Devlin was an especially unconventional film, a historical biography focusing on the problems of history for women by dealing with a relatively neglected figure whose role was avowedly secondary in the failed rebellion of 1803, where she served as a housekeeper for the conspirators and was eventually tortured and imprisoned by English interrogators. The film was essentially a sequence of painstaking posed tableaus, more reminiscent of painting than cinema, and filled with ominous, meaningful silences and dark, empty voids between oppressed and repressed human beings. Both films were studied, staid, and almost unwatchably self-involved though, as most films of that era in Ireland were. Nora is considerably more extroverted and conventional in style, but it is also more engaging.

The film follows Joyce (McGregor) and Nora (Susan Lynch) through the first years of their relationship. It begins with important but fleeting moments in Nora's early life before she fled Galway for Dublin, where she met with Joyce. It then presents Joyce's discontentment with Ireland in that era and his desire for freedom which Nora, with her wild, uncouth (but not unsophisticated) spirit stimulates. The couple run away to Italy, where he begins to work in earnest on his stories while trying to hold down a teaching job and she battles with him at every turn over emotional and spiritual questions which will eventually work their way through his writing. The connections are not simplistic or literal, but delicate and very human ones which are obvious only when one remembers the fury and passion of Joyce's work. His troubled relationship with Nora is seen as a necessarily combative one, where love and desire are complicated by jealousy and wilful unconventionality. Joyce practically forces her to be unfaithful, as if it will somehow make his life more miserable and therefore increase the range of experiences about which he can write (as the character of Stanislaus Joyce (brother) remarks at one point: "Jim finds rejection every where he goes, and where he can't find it, he invents it"). Yet he is also a vulnerable and needy man who requires her (distinctively and explicitly feminine) strength and her ability to fight with and against him to sustain a true creative and emotional partnership. Though it is less obvious than in the likes of Anne Devlin and Maeve, this is a film about a woman's place in a male world. It is considerably more subtle and even-handed about it though, portraying a relationship between equals which oscillates throughout rather than falling on one side or the other on questions of superiority or dominance (remember that this Joyce is not yet a literary figure and the film does not even reach the publication of Dubliners).

In terms of basic details, the film is immaculate. Beautiful set and costume designs unobtrusively capture the feel of the era and the locales. Lovely camerawork and gentle scoring contribute to the mood, and the editing is considerably more easy on the brain than the snails-crawl of Murphy's earlier work (though there are doubtlessly those for whom this will represent some kind of betrayal of art house ideals). McGregor (Rogue Trader, Star Wars Episode I) is a believable Joyce (at least at this stage of his life) and Lynch is a powerful screen presence from start to finish, almost frighteningly intense and more than a match for her on-screen partner. Though the narrative does allow deliberate lapses in the timeline, the central emotional and dramatic threads are coherent throughout. The script, co-written by Murphy and Gerry Stembridge (Guiltrip, Ordinary Decent Criminal) is literate but always understandable in human terms, and retains its focus well. The film never loses touch with its audience, and though it ends prematurely from the point of view of a conventional history of Joyce, this is not important (it is not meant to be his story anyway). The relationship issues between them and especially for Nora have been resolved satisfactorily as far as the narrative is concerned when the movie ends, and the rest of the adventure is for the viewer to pick up on by reading some books. Mind you, another hour of Joyce's struggles against moral and literary oppression and some tearful melodrama with Nora making some kind of speech about the rights of artists and/or women to express themselves and the film would probably be on its way to Oscar glory next year. As is, it is a stimulating, stylish, and intelligent drama which will appeal to a relatively small audience, but will provide those who do attend with much food for thought. It has been a long time coming, but in the event, Pat Murphy's Nora is a pleasing and welcome contribution to contemporary Irish cinema, as much a part of the renaissance as her earlier films were part of what we might now call the classical period. Worth a look, but be warned, this is not mug-of-warm-tea-and-slippers viewing: it contains scenes of explicit sex and obscene language, which is, when you think about it, just as it should be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.