The twentieth century’s three greatest writers who were born to the English language were all Irish: Yeats, Joyce, Beckett.
Based on Brenda Maddox’s biography, Nora begins in 1904 Dublin when Nora Barnacle, from Galway and a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel, meets for the first time James Joyce, the future author of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake. (Like Virginia Woolf, Joyce pioneered the literary technique called stream of consciousness.) Boldly, Joyce approaches Barnacle on the street; but it is Barnacle who takes over the encounter, delighting and intriguing Joyce, but also laying the groundwork for his future paranoid jealousy regarding her—feelings that would be exacerbated by erstwhile friends who resented Barnacle’s difference in social class. Joyce married Barnacle, who inspired his work and whose biography provided details for it. They had two children and remained together (mostly on the Continent) for the rest of Joyce’s life. Theirs was a turbulent relationship.
There are a few fine scenes in director Pat Murphy’s Nora, and the film steadily improves, ending on a lovely, haunting note. There is also a wonderful performance on hand: Peter McDonald’s as Jim’s sensitive, loyal, caring brother Stanislaus. Unfortunately, however, Murphy’s eye is deficient, rendering the majority of her mise-en-scène formless and pointless. Susan Lynch gives a spotty performance as Nora. Co-producer Ewan McGregor’s bespectacled Joyce is vapid, without a hint of intellectual acumen, let alone genius. (McGregor sings beautifully, though.)
The film is about the couple’s relationship; James and Nora are co-protagonists. However, an unbiased view finds the film conforming to our greater interest in Joyce. For example, the boyfriend of Nora’s who died so young registers more vividly as the model for Michael Furey in “The Dead” than as a lingering part of Nora’s own consciousness.
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