Nora Barnacle was the life partner of the Irish-born writer James Joyce, author of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the greatest writer of the twentieth century, perhaps any century. Rather than adapting Banana Xerox (Brenda Maddox)'s biography into a biopic, writer/director Pat Murphy has turned it into a beautifully crafted, impeccably measured, sweet love story. The film spans 1904-12: from Nora's flight from Galway to Dublin, where she met Joyce and soon emigrated with him to Europe, eventually settling in Trieste, an Italian irredentist city then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
To Joyceans like me, the film provides a fascinating perspective of Joyce from a woman's point of view, from his muse, Nora. Ewan McGregor's performance is surprisingly pleasing. He does not have the stature, the blue eyes, the accent one might expect of Joyce; but he has the character down to a tee. One begins to believe it is him, and the resemblance with photos at particular stages of his life are uncanny. Susan Lynch is outstanding as Nora: independent-minded, fiercely loyal, anti-intellectual, and just as disaffected with Ireland's betrayers as Joyce.
This film doesn't disappoint. Dublin is suitably claustrophobic and paralyzed, if a little too much like a move set. Stanislaus, Joyce's devoted younger brother, is brilliantly realized by Peter McDonald. There are subtle suggestions that he has romantic affections for Nora. The kids, Giorgio and Lucia are delightfully portrayed by a group of child actors, including Triestine Joyce scholar (and author of The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920) John McCourt's son, Liam, who scribbles on Joyce's precious manuscripts as Giorgio aged 2. There are hints at Lucia's abandonment - pointing to later mental troubles that lie outwith the concerns of this film.
Compared to Bloom (2003), which in so many ways fell short of its potential, Nora really is a fine film about Joyce, leaving his work quietly to one side. It is mirthful, poignant, and creative in it reconfiguration of biographical facts in order to make a more coherent screen narrative. For Joyceans it is a work of joy, a look at the man and his muse away from his work. Yet to those who know little or nothing about Joyce and his writing, it will still function as a touching love story, a portrait of womanhood and the devotion of two human beings to one another.
Nugget: bravo, says I.