Friday May 4, 2001
On June 10, 1904, James Joyce, who would become one of the 20th century's greatest, most innovative writers, crossed paths on Dublin's Nassau Street with Nora Barnacle, a newcomer to the city from Galway who had taken a job as a maid at nearby Finn's Hotel, a hangout for the writer's literary pals. Joyce was transfixed instantly by this self-possessed beauty and feverishly described an encounter with Nora a mere six days later as "a sacrament which left in me a final sense of sorrow and degradation." Whew!
Some years ago Barnacle became the subject of a widely acclaimed biography by Brenda Maddox, which in turn has become the basis for a captivating film. "Nora," directed by Pat Murphy and adapted by her and Gerard Stembridge from Maddox's book, is a gorgeous period piece with rich, vigorous portrayals of Joyce by Ewan McGregor (who co-produced) and Barnacle by Susan Lynch. The message is crystal-clear (yet may be lost on those who've never read Joyce): The man lived what he wrote in "Dubliners," "The Dead," "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" and "Ulysses," works that transformed literature. The last created an international censorship controversy over its sexual candor, and furor and puzzlement over its bold, experimental style.
"Volcanic" seems too puny a word to describe the passion that seared and enveloped Joyce and Barnacle. Lynch's Nora is a strong-featured, dark-haired goddess resembling French actress Fanny Ardant. She's a stunner whose sharp awareness of the class differences between her and the scholarly Joyce did not daunt her self-worth even as it made her initially wary of Joyce's intentions. Nora is intelligent, well-spoken and, as her letters reveal, a skilled, expressive writer in her own right. She was surely the right woman at the right time and place for Joyce: passionate, uninhibited and as unafraid to defy convention as he was. Finding Ireland stifling and oppressive in the thrall of the church, Joyce increasingly felt the need to flee his native land; in Nora he found the woman with the courage to cast her lot with him.
Much of the film is set in Trieste, where Joyce had secured a teaching post. The couple are caught up in a scorching love affair, intensified by Joyce's difficulties in getting his work published, so easily dismissed as merely unflattering to Irish life by the unthinking, and by Joyce's bouts of near-insane jealousy. Chronically short of funds, the couple moves from one suite of rooms of faded grandeur to the next, with Nora bearing a son and a daughter along the way. Nonchalant about their money problems, the couple love to dress well and leave Joyce's devoted brother Stanislaus (Peter McDonald) to deal with their financial woes.
Like Vincent van Gogh's hard-put brother Theo, Stannie accurately sees in his brother a genius in the making, and the thrust of the entire film is Nora's gradual awakening to her role not merely as lover but as a muse. Initially, she sees Joyce as "stealing her life" for material for his stories that she increasingly only "half-understands." She must deal with a lover for whom bouts of jealousy not only inflame his ardor but also fuel a progressively more revolutionary literary vision, encompassing sexual passion with startling candor and multiple levels of consciousness.
Their tempestuous relationship begins to wear them down, just as this film threatens to become wearying to watch. The filmmakers' special triumph lies in the inspired way that in the nick of time it draws its story to a close, with Nora and Joyce struggling toward a new level of understanding, a struggle that falls much more on her than him. When the film takes leave of the couple, circa 1912, the storm unleashed by "Ulysses" is yet to come, as is Joyce's failing eyesight. By this time, however, it's clear that Nora will be able to handle whatever life has in store for her and the man who is her husband in all but name.
Nora, 2001. R, for some strong sexuality and related dialogue. An Andora Pictures International release of a Natural Nylon Entertainment production. Director Pat Murphy. Producers Bradley Adams, Damon Bryant, Tracey Seaeward. Executive producer Guy Collins. Screenplay by Murphy and Gerard Stembridge; based on the biography by Brenda Maddox. Cinematographer Jean Francois Robin. Editor Pia di Ciaula. Music Stanislas Syrewicz. Costumes Consolata Boyle. Production designer Alan Macdonald. Art directors Martin Goulding (Ireland); Stefano Maria Ortolani (Italy); Ulrich Schroder (Germany). Set decorators Alessandra Querzola (Italy). Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Ewan McGregor as James Joyce. Susan Lynch as Nora Barnacle. Peter McDonald as Stanislas Joyce. Roberto Citran as Roberto Prezioso.