Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Artists are bad enough, but you can't do anything with writers - scribble scribble scribble, angst, paranoia, alcohol, self-absorption, selfishness - when it comes to making movies.

If the legendary pub crawler, James Joyce, wasn't famous for spending the last decade of his life on an unreadable book (Finnegan's Wake) and eight years on another (Ulysses) that was banned in Britain until after his death, this film would not have seen the dark of a projection room.

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Nora Barnacle (Susan Lynch) was a chambermaid at Finn's Hotel, Dublin. She met Joyce (Ewan McGregor) in 1904, when he was working on an unpublished autobiographical novel. His friends thought she was a tart and, certainly, compared to the inexperienced Joyce, appeared to have no sexual inhibitions.

Weeks later, they took off for Italy and from there to Trieste, where he taught English at the Berlitz school. This is not the story of how a spirited country girl from Galway inspired an intellectual, self-exiled Irish novelist to improve his carnal knowledge. It is the story of a most unlikely partnership.

Nora's attitude to life, sex and commitment would not feel out of place today. Nor would her moments of depression, or flaming rages against the man she felt used her as an emotional guinea pig. Her sense of self and refusal to become an appendage to the genius Jimmy is thoroughly modern. Inevitably, her two children suffered a certain neglect.

As the first full production from Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Jude Law, Sean Pertwee and Sadie Frost's film company, Natural Nylon, it is a brave attempt at an impossible task - how to comprehend the creative process.

To be fair, director/co-writer Pat Murphy, does not attempt such a thing. "How can I be happy when he's a stranger to me," Nora asks. He remains a bit of an odd ball throughout, afraid of thunder, intrigued by jealousy, excited by "dirty" writing, obsessed with rejection, terrified of cows.

McGregor's charm seeps through, however hard he tries to surpress it. There is no sense of an extraordinary mind at work here, but then the Joyce of this movie is not the literary innovator, so much as the on-again-off-again lover.

Lynch is fierce in her protection of the heroine. Nora flashes a flirtatious smile, as well as bares her teeth against the patronising snobbery of Joyce's Dublin drinking buddies. This is her life and Lynch does not let you forget it. But that is all it is, a love affair based on sexual attraction that is mostly painful and occasionally productive. As for Molly Bloom, would she have existed without Nora?

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Biopic, tracing James Joyce's relationship with a hotel maid.
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Director: Pat Murphy

Writer: Pat Murphy, Gerard Stembridge, based on the book by Brenda Maddox

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Susan Lynch, Peter McDonald, Aedin Moloney

Year: 1999

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Ireland/Italy/Germany


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