UK/Ireland/Germany 1999

Reviewed by Kevin Maher


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Dublin, 1904. James Joyce introduces himself to a young Galway woman, Nora Barnacle. Soon after, the two become lovers. Nora, a hotel maid, is sexually confident and Joyce fears she has been with other men, including his rival Cosgrave. Joyce confronts Nora, who hotly denies any liaison. Joyce tells Nora he feels threatened by his enemies and stifled by Ireland's moral climate. They move to Trieste, Northern Italy, where Joyce teaches English and writes.

Their relationship becomes increasingly tempestuous. Nora, pregnant and homesick, disapproves of Joyce's heavy drinking. They have a baby boy, Giorgio, and Joyce's younger brother Stanislas comes to stay. Joyce has trouble finding a publisher for his short-story collection Dubliners.

Three years later, while visiting Dublin to set up the city's first cinema, Joyce hears again that Cosgrave had sex with Nora, but is convinced by Cosgrave's friend Gogarty that the rumour isn't true. Joyce and Nora - who now have a second child, Lucia - write a series of sexually explicit letters to each other. Joyce returns to Trieste but soon tries to push Nora into an affair with local newspaper editor Roberto Prezioso. Nora returns to Ireland with the children. Joyce follows her and, after his repeated failure to publish Dubliners, announces he's never coming back to Ireland again. Reconciled, the family returns to Trieste.


When Irish director Pat Murphy acquired the rights to Nora, Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Barnacle (James Joyce's lover and eventual wife), in 1991 it seemed like a perfect coalition. Murphy's two previous features, Maeve and Anne Devlin, were both powerful acts of feminist reclamation. In Maeve Murphy uses a returned Belfast émigré to question male nationalistic traditions, and in the latter she re-examines the botched Robert Emmet rebellion of 1803 with respect to the role played by the Irish leader's loyal housemaid. This is why, after a lengthy eight years in development, Nora arrives as something of a disappointment.

From our first streetside encounter with the charming Joyce, it's clear the driving dramatic momentum of Maddox's biography has been greatly reduced. Whereas Maddox displays a constant and unforgiving disdain for Joyce, often peevishly criticising his physical ineptitude and depicting Nora as a robust martyr, Murphy's portrait is more favourable, revealing Joyce's many eccentricities and neuroses as signs of sensitivity. Consequently, the gap between the romantic couple narrows and, after they move to Trieste, they are simply depicted as equal combatants in a series of volatile and essentially repetitive arguments, usually centred on her fidelity or his intemperance and impecuniousness.

Nora herself is a deeply unsatisfactory creation. As a painfully recherché gynocentric archetype, she seems to have been carefully forged in the smithy of 70s French feminism, by way of Camille Paglia, as the wild Dionysian body to Joyce's cold Apollonian mind. She is, of course, sexually aggressive, proudly physical, and she rejects the naturally oppressive patriarchal world of language systems Joyce so eagerly embraces. (In an infamous anecdote, she imagines Ibsen to be a friend of Joyce simply because he has read him.)

Susan Lynch plays Nora the only way the script allows: as an irascible, tempestuous and earthy woman. Ironically, the result of this crude attempt to reclaim Nora's identity is that she is merely reinscribed once more back into Joycean mythology and the Ulysses character of Molly Bloom, whom she now resembles more than ever.

As Joyce, Ewan McGregor gives an appealing and understated performance, though unconvincing lines like "Yes, but what did you think of the style?" hardly help the cause of verisimilitude. His consistent adoption of seated and standing Joycean poses (Joyce used to 'double cross' his legs) is impressive. But the script demands very little character evolution from Joyce or Nora as they enact their many estrangements and subsequent reconciliations, from Dublin to Trieste, to Dublin and back to Trieste again. Here the choice of a narrow ten-year narrative time frame, from 1904 to 1914, appears particularly arbitrary, especially considering the high drama of Joyce's later life (his daughter's mental illness, the effects of World Wars I and II, his own attempted affairs, and so on).

Nora is photographed impressively by Jean-François Robin (Betty Blue, Roselyne et les lions), who clearly relishes the harsh transition between the cold claustrophobic grey-blues of Dublin and the rich warm yellows of Trieste. But the impact is lessened as the Joyces flit back and forth between the two contrapuntal cities. Here a particularly weak device is repeatedly employed, perhaps due to budgetary constraints, where train journeys are simulated by passing smoke in front of a speeding camera while a hackneyed fanfare of choo-choo sounds is heard.

In the end, despite its flaws, Nora is a considerable achievement for the modern biopic for doggedly refusing to engage with the creative clichés of the tortured-genius subject as seen in Surviving Picasso, Wilde or Total Eclipse. Nora is thankfully free from syrupy eulogies about the power of Joyce's work. Ultimately, it's unfortunate then that when director Murphy turned away from Joyce she could only create in Nora a limited and drearily familiar character from what was by many accounts (including the movie's source material) a dynamic and fascinating woman.


Pat Murphy
Bradley Adams
Damon Bryant
Tracey Seaward
Volta Films:
Tiernan MacBride
Pat Murphy
Gerard Stembridge
Based on the biography by Brenda Maddox
Director of Photography
Jean François Robin
Pia Di Ciaula
Production Designer
Alan MacDonald
Stanislas Syrewicz
Production Companies
Natural Nylon Entertainment in association with IAC Holdings/Volta Films/
Road Movies Vierte Produktionen/
Gam Film/Metropolitan Films
Supported by Bord Scannán na héireann (Irish Film Board)/
FilmFörderung Hamburg GmbH/Ministero per I Beni e le Attività Culturali - dipartimento della Spettacolo/Radio Telefís éireann
Developed in association with Sally Ann O'Reilly/
Ben Barenholtz
Executive Producers
Guy Collins
Bord Scannán na héireann:
Rod Stoneman
Natural Nylon Entertainment:
Tony Miller
Ewan McGregor
James Flynn
Ulrich Felsberg
Gherardo Pagliei
Production Executive
Metroplitan Films:
Susan Holmes
Production Supervisors
Andrea Borella
Albert Schwinges
Production Co-ordinators
Lisa Parker
Road Movies Vierte Produktionen:
Gabrielle Niemeyer
Daniele Pfennigs
Katie Judge
Ireland Production Manager
Des Martin
Unit Manager, Italy
Mark Giacalone
Location Managers Ireland:
Paddy McCarney
Beatrice Arweiler
Maurizio Pigna
Alistair Hopkins
Katie Judge
Assistant Directors
Tommy Gormley
Sarah Purser
Jill Dempsey
Lisa Kelly
Bojana Sutic
Gilles Canatella
Lars Henning
Script Supervisor
Laerke Sigfred Pedersen
Casting Directors
Nuala Moiselle
Frank Moiselle
Shaila Rubin
Script Consultant
Natural Nylon Entertainment:
Nell Greenwood
Camera Operator
Ireland 2nd Unit:
Ciaran Barry
Steadicam Operators
Roger Tooley
Vince McGahon
Special Visual Effects
Mill Film, London
Special Effects, Ireland
Team FX
Special Effects, Italy
Corridori Giovanni & C.
Graphic Artist, Ireland
Laurence O'Toole
Supervising Art Director
Terry Pritchard
Art Directors
Martin Goulding
Stefano Maria Ortolani
Ulrich Schröder
Set Decorator, Italy
Alessandra Querzola
Portrait Artist
Thomasina Smith
Gary McGinty
Alessandro Alberti
Costume Designer
Consolata Boyle
Wardrobe Supervisor
Rhona McGuirke
Key Costume Makers
Maggie Scobbie
Keith Watson
Chief Make-up Artist
Máire O'Sullivan
Chief Hair Artist
Orla Carroll
Title Design
Richard Morrison
Annabel Dundas
Digital Titles/Optical Effects
General Screen Enterprises
Score Performed by
The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by
Tadeusz Wicherek
Music Editor
Joyce Songs:
Richard Todman
Recording Engineer
Rafal Paczkowski
Tony Taverner
"She Is Far from the Land" vocals: Ewan McGregor, piano: Brian Gascoigne; "The Lass of Aughrim" vocals: Susan Lynch, Ewan McGregor, guitar: Ewan McGregor; "Green Isle of Erin" vocals: Ewan McGregor, piano: Brian Gascoigne; "The Star of the County Down" vocals: Karl Scully, piano: Brian Gascoigne; "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" vocals: Ewan McGregor, Ignazio Oliva, piano: Brian Gascoigne; "The Lass of Aughrim" vocals: Susan Lynch, Ewan McGregor, guitar: Gerry Grennell
Sound Recordist
Peter Lindsay
Re-recording Mixers
Adrian Rhodes
Stuart Hilliker
Supervising Sound Editor
Nick Adams
Dialogue Editors
Gordon Brown
Jonathan Cronin
Additional Effects Editor
Hugo Adams
Jason Swanscott
Diane Greaves
John Griffith
Stunt Co-ordinator
Philippe Zone
Ewan McGregor
James Joyce
Susan Lynch
Nora Barnacle
Peter McDonald
Stanislas Joyce
Roberto Citran
Roberto Prezioso
Andrew Scott
Michael Bodkin
Vincent McCabe
Uncle Tommy
Veronica Duffy
Annie Barnacle
Aedín Moloney
Eva Joyce
Pauline McLynn
Miss Kennedy
Neilí Conroy
Daragh Kelly
Alan Devine
Paul Hickey
Kate O'Toole
Miss Delahunty
Martin Murphy
George Russell
Karl Scully
John McCormack
Frances Burke
old woman
Monica Scattini
Amalia Globocnik
Adrian McCourt
Ignazio Oliva
Alessandro Francini Bruni
Stefania Montorsi
Clothilde Francini bruni
Síle Nugent
maid 2
Franco Trevisi
Tullio Sylvestri
Eamonn Hunt
George Roberts
Manuel Bragato
baby Giorgio
Liam McCourt
Odin O'Sullivan
Giorgio, age 2
Dylan Mooney
Giorgio, age 4
Ben Harding
Giorgio, age 6
Robin Mooney
Lucia, age 2
Lauren Mulhall
Lucia, age 4
Alliance Releasing (UK)
9,585 feet
106 minutes 30 seconds
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011