Loretta Goff  revisits Nora, the true story of Nora Barnacle and her tempestuous relationship with James Joyce, from acclaimed Irish director Pat Murphy.

Nora screened on Saturday, 6th November 2021 as part of the Female Visions retrospective strand of Cork International Film Festival. This programme, which celebrated the work of international female directors who made a large impact in film history, contained nine feature films spanning from 1966 to 2007, including Clair Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) and Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori) (2007). Representing Ireland in this selection was Kristen Sheridan’s Disco Pigs (2001), which was the Festival’s Opening Gala 20 years ago, and Pat Murphy’s Nora (2000), which tells the story of Nora Barnacle and her relationship with James Joyce. 

Pat Murphy established herself as a bold, feminist filmmaker with her first feature film Maeve (1981), an experimental exploration of the conflict in Northern Ireland through the young 20 something Maeve returning to her family home in Belfast after years away. Murphy followed this up with Anne Devlin (1984), for which she used Devlin’s prison diaries to portray the woman’s role as an Irish revolutionary alongside Robert Emmet. Murphy’s centring of the historical woman and her point of view here is something that she carried over to Nora, reframing the focus from the normally spotlighted Joyce. 

Murphy’s Nora, based on Brenda Maddox’s 1988 novel of the same title, centres on Nora Barnacle’s (Susan Lynch) tempestuous relationship with James Joyce (Ewan McGregor), but, significantly, it begins at a point in Nora’s life in Galway, and the unfortunate end of her relationship with Michael Bodkin, rather than when she meets Joyce in Dublin. This immediately establishes Nora’s life as her own rather than simply part of Joyce’s larger story. Once in Dublin, the focus remains on Nora, who has taken up a job at Finn’s Hotel, where we see her well able to hold her own amongst the male patrons of the hotel bar who turn out to be Joyce’s friends. The film then continues with Nora’s perspective throughout the ups and downs of her relationship with Joyce as they move to Trieste and have children.

Lynch’s portrayal of the title character imbues her with a distinct personality. She is strong-willed, adventurous, witty, and uninhibited in her expressions, from conversational to emotional and sexual. In this sense, she comes to represent a sense of freedom that was unusual for the time (early 1900s), particularly for women. This representation situates Nora as Joyce’s equal throughout the film, if not stronger than him. She motivates his work and keeps him on track in addition to establishing her own friendships and social life in a new country while also raising their children, often without his help as he takes time away for writing and publishing his work. Equally, she matches him insult for insult during their emotive spats. Nora’s strength, however, does not mean she is simply stoic and indestructible. Importantly, no emotions are held back in Lynch’s performance, and we see Nora at deeply distressed moments, not shying away from her at her darkest moments and thus normalising this natural expression. 

McGregor’s version of Joyce offers a similar range in expression, from reserved to vociferous, and charming to vitriolic, but deliberately does not outshine Lynch’s performance, instead slotting into the role of a very strong supporting character. Joyce’s siblings, Eva (Adein Moloney) and Stanislaus (Peter McDonald), also appear throughout the film, with Stanislaus acting as an intermediary of sorts between Nora and James, and Eva playing the part of the slightly nosy and judgemental sister. Together, they establish a family dynamic and situate Nora with her own prominent role within that family.

The setting of Trieste is equally important in the film, adding a warmth and exuberance that provides the setting for the sense of freedom that the two leads explore there. This contrasts to the duller and slightly more reserved, though equally bustling Dublin, and the remote, blustery Galway, further suggesting Trieste as a place of escape for Nora and James, generally removed from the prying eyes of the families and communities they have left behind in Ireland. Joyce’s return to Dublin for a period in the film reinforces this as his friends cause conflict in his relationship with Nora through judgemental and ill-informed gossip about her. Despite their turbulent relationship throughout the film, it is also Trieste that offers a tranquil, golden sunset for the two to peacefully walk towards at the end of the film, finding some sort of balance.

Ultimately, Murphy’s Nora is timeless in its portrayal of two historical characters who seem out of place in their own time, remaining true to themselves, pushing boundaries and exploring the limits of expression. Giving voice to Nora, Murphy adds a welcome change in perspective to the many studies and portrayals of Joyce with a film that remains engaging, well-received, and timely in its feminist perspective today, twenty-one years after its first release. Indeed, the large audience at the Cork Film Festival thoroughly enjoyed the screening, gasping in shock at some moments and chuckling at others. 

Nora screened on 6th November 2021 as part of the Cork International Film Festival.


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