(director/writer: Pat Murphy; screenwriter: Gerard Stembridge/based on the biography by Brenda Maddox; cinematographer: Jean-Francois Robin; editor: Pia Di Ciaula; cast: Ewan McGregor (James Joyce), Susan Lynch (Nora Barnacle), Peter McDonald (Stanislaus Joyce), Roberto Citran (Roberto Prezioso), Aedin Moloney (Eva Joyce), Vinnie McCabe (Uncle Tommy), Alan D.”evine (Gogarty), Darragh Kelly (Cosgrave), Veronica Duffy (Annie Barnacle),; Runtime: 106; Alliance Atlantis; 2000-UK)
“An art-house film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the toughest kinds of film to make is a bio of a writer. Joseph Strick had a go at the great 20th-century Irish writer James Joyce and came away with a flat film; while the Irish woman director, Pat Murphy (Maeve/Anne Devlin), tries a different approach filming Joyce’s bio and comes up with one that is uneven. She uses the Brenda Maddox biography on Nora Barnacle and approaches her genius writer as seen through the eyes of the tough-skinned, uneducated woman who was his longtime lover and muse, and was used as the inspiration behind his character of Molly Bloom in his masterpiece “Ulysses.” The film becomes a strong love story, rather than an attempt to do the usual bio on Joyce. It tells of the young Joyce running away with Nora in 1904 from repressive Dublin and going to Trieste, where he found the freedom to write his early great novels “The Dead” and “The Dubliners.” Trieste plays a more important part in this film than does Dublin, probably because modern Dublin is entirely different from the one Joyce knew.
Joyce is a subversive writer, who stands opposed to the oppressive climate of the early 20th-century Ireland. What Murphy tries to do is see Joyce the way the tourist industry in Ireland doesn’t want to see him, as a man obsessed by sex and writing about it. Which is why he was always considered a pornographic writer in orthodox Catholic Ireland. But, of late, Joyce has been prettied up and his head has been placed on the Irish crown, along with statues of him all over Dublin. That this film is the anti-tourist look at him, one that shows his darker nature and of how jealous and maddening he could be about sex, is a credit to the filmmaker. Nevertheless, the film is still a conventional one. The storytelling was of the old-fashioned kind, which in this case works as a detriment. It’s a superficial look at the artist and can’t peel away the many inner layers of this very complicated genius. At times it felt like a soap opera rather than a drama. I learned more from the film about Nora than I did about Joyce.
It starts out when a young Nora (Lynch) is forced to leave Galway because of her sexual flings with various men, as her Uncle Tommy beats her and threatens to send her to a convent. Instead she ends up working as a hotel barmaid in Dublin, where Joyce (McGregor-he also produced the film with his company Natural Nylon) meets her in the street and becomes a man by having sex with her in the alleyway. There was no place for lovers to go in Dublin at that time, so the streets became their bedroom. He will learn all about sex from the experienced woman and has the courage and the brains to realize he has chosen the woman who is in many ways at one with him, even though she is not an intellectual. His drinking buddies, Cosgrove, Gogarty, and his brother Stanislaus (McDonald), think this is not a suitable match and that Joyce will dump the uncultured lady when he gets his fill of her.
Stuck in the limited atmosphere of Dublin he flees with her to Trieste, Italy, where he lives in poverty and constant tension, working as a teacher. He is unsuccessful in his bid to find a publisher for his “The Dubliners;” but, the aspiring writer blossoms here and in his struggle for freedom becomes a writer. They have two children, Giorgio and his beloved Lucia. They make friends with the Italian artist community and one of their friends Roberto might be having an affair with Nora, at least Joyce suspects this and has an uncalled for temper tantrum about this–which embarrasses both Roberto and Nora.
The struggling couple’s life is not an easy one to grasp. The writer is fond of drinking and spending long hours in isolation. But he always returns to Nora, as her sexual pull is so great that he can’t leave her.
The main actors were engaging. Susan Lynch is a bold and daring Nora, with a quick uncouth wit and a sometimes long face which changes when she smiles and shows how earthy she can be. Ewan McGregor complements her as the brooding writer, always searching inwardly for more light to shed on his thoughts. They are convincing as lovers, each dependent on the other for survival. The problem with all the stylized intelligence the film brought, which is a fine achievement, is that it’s never carefree. It looks like an art-house film that can’t get out of the strait-jacket it placed itself in.
REVIEWED ON 7/27/2001 GRADE: C+