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Nora review

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD

For the first three decades of the 20th 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, 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. 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.

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 Trieste in 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.

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. McGregor is a believable Joyce and Lynch is a powerful screen presence from start to finish, almost frighteningly intense and more than a match for her on-screen partner.

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. 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.

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