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In 1904, in Dublin, James Joyce chats up Nora Barnacle, a hotel maid recently come from Galway. She enchants him with her frank, direct and uninhibited manner, and before long, he's convinced her to come with him to Trieste, where he has a job with Berlitz. Over time, Nora pulls him through phobias, tolerates his drinking, takes in his brother Stan, and bests Joyce at 'the writin' game' to bring him back to Italy from Dublin where he's gone to open a cinema. But his sexual jealousy threatens the relationship and sends her back to Galway with the children. Is there any way to tame Jim's green-eyed monster? And, will the lad ever get his stories published? Written by
How one views this film will depend in part on how much of a Joyce devotee the viewer is. As is the case with any film based on the life of a larger-than-life figure, the film will be largely viewed by those who have an avid interest in James Joyce. These viewers will judge the film with a much more discerning eye. The fact that Joyce's work does not have mass appeal and is devoured by a small but fervent group of literary intellectuals makes the scrutiny that much more intense. For this audience, the film will have numerous unbearable flaws and inaccuracies.
However, for the audience of non aficionados, this film has a great deal to recommend itself, providing that the viewer loves good drama and has the patience to endure its methodical pacing. The story is a powerful love story with shearing forces that bring emotional torrent to the relationship. In it we find the high minded writer, James Joyce, obsessed with Nora, the coarse and illiterate chamber maid whose practical wisdom and unfettered sexuality provide the ideal compliment and the perfect wedge. These two are helpless moths being consumed by a bonfire of ardor built on differences that are as irreconcilable as they are essential to each of their souls. Given this premise, we have the underpinnings of great theater.
Despite the disappointment of many Joyce fans regarding this treatment, the film is really not about James Joyce, it is about the relationship. Thankfully, director Pat Murphy didn't lose sight of that fact and succumb to the temptation to mollify Joyce fans by making this a Joyce-centric film. Murphy patiently peels away the layers of each character and casts each revelation on the relationship like kerosene on a house fire. The deeper we get into the characters, the more complex and hopeless the relationship becomes, and paradoxically, the more inextricably entwined its participants.
Murphy's direction is excellent on all fronts. The cinematography is incredible with awe inspiring locations and a wonderfully rich sepia quality that enhances the period renderings. The look and feel the period is well done. The early 20th century costumes, furniture, sets and props are precise and breathe life and realism into each scene.
The acting is superb. Ewan McGregor practically rips himself to shreds playing the mercurial Joyce, jovial and charming one minute, paranoid, brooding and insanely jealous the next. However, poor Ewan once again has a terrific performance upstaged by his co-star Susan Lynch (See Nicole Kidman and "Moulin Rouge!").
Despite lacking the classic features of a leading lady, Lynch's physiognomy is a perfect match for the earthy Nora. Lynch can flat out act. This lady has a five octave emotional range with the force of Caribbean hurricane. If there weren't a single other reason to see this film, her performance would be enough.
I am glad that I happened on to this film buried in the stacks at the video store. I rated it a 9/10. It isn't for everyone, but for those who can appreciate a fatalistic love story with steamy sexual content, constant emotional tension, great acting and insightful directing; this will be a disturbing, but worthwhile experience.
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