Nuala: Palm Springs Review

Nuala Film Still - H 2013

Nuala Film Still - H 2013

An intimate and compelling chronicle of a remarkable life.

Filmmakers Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan explore the voracious life of Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain in all its complexity.

Irish Times columnist-turned-author Nuala O'Faolain, a woman of fascinating contradictions and a ferocious appetite for life, was born to write. The documentary Nuala, which received its U.S. premiere at the recent Palm Springs fest, is an outstanding depiction of this calling, and it brings her into focus through a powerful mix of archival material and new interviews, opting for complexity over hagiography. A fine fit for arts-and-culture programming, the made-for-television doc more than holds the screen with its poetic cinematic touches and the intimacy of its testimony. It’s a worthy festival title that could be a niche draw in select markets. 

Directors Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan have structured their poignant film as a friend’s journey into O’Faolain’s life, three years after her death. That friend is Irish broadcaster Marian Finucane, on whose radio show the writer announced, on April 12, 2008, that she had terminal cancer. She died a month later, at 68. 

Even in her final weeks, O’Faolain’s unblinking honesty was remarkable. “I can’t be consoled by mention of God,” she told Finucane, and their audience, during that harrowing and tender radio conversation, excerpted in the film. “It seems such a waste of creation.”

O’Faolain, it seems, had never been one to waste the gift of life, though she was not without her demons and periods of despair. Her memoir Are You Somebody? -- published when she was in her late 50s -- pulled the lace curtains off Ireland’s patriarchal sense of propriety, with O’Faolain laying bare her troubled upbringing and her unapologetic sexual history. 

Having grown up in a provincial country that suppressed female sexuality, O’Faolain grabbed life by the reins at an early age. Her precocious interest in older men when she was 14 led to a stint at boarding school that turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of her life, with its structure and, especially, its books. “My own life began when I first made out the meaning of a sentence,” she wrote. 

Longtime friend and colleague Finucane, who saw an early draft of her memoir, says she knew it would cause a stir. She was right. It took off on home turf and went on to become an international best-seller, putting the author in rarefied literary territory as she began a new phase of her life in New York. She was championed by Frank McCourt on national television, received special privileges at the 42nd Street library and fell in love with a Brooklyn lawyer who was raising a daughter.

Until that point, O’Faolain’s relationships mainly had been with older intellectuals, among them the art critic Clement Greenberg. They were more often than not men who shared her ambition but treated her badly -- a pattern no doubt instilled during her childhood in Dublin. The father she adored was a famous social columnist and philandering man about town whose nine children lived in squalor while their mother spent most of her waking hours at the pub. 

But if O’Faolain was “omnivorous” with men in her youth, as one friend puts it, her longest relationship was with a woman, the feminist journalist Nell McCafferty. When their domestic partnership ended after 15 years, O’Faolain publicly disowned that aspect of her sexuality in a way that devastated McCafferty and that some observers found cruel. 

A full-blooded sense of O’Faolain emerges as Finucane speaks with friends, fellow writers, editors and publishers. One New York friend characterizes her experience of O’Faolain as “tidal waves of strong emotion.” Three of her sisters are interviewed, a trio of women who could not be more different from one another and whose silences say at least as much as their words. 

The filmmakers highlight quotes from O’Faolain’s published work, especially her memoir, in onscreen text. They use a different form of onscreen text to potent effect in selections from her post-diagnosis emails. The words are excruciating in their straightforward eloquence as she faced her illness, and Michael Fleming’s score accentuates the mood without resorting to heavy-handedness. 

Nuala honors its subject’s passion for the written word no less than her passion for life. It doesn’t sugarcoat the emotional messiness of the unconventional life she created, which makes it all the more affecting as a portrait of exuberant dissent. 

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production companies: Raidio Teilifis Eireann and Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, with the participation of the Irish Film Board, present an Accidental Pictures production
Directors: Patrick Farrelly, Kate O'Callaghan
Producers: Patrick Farrelly, Marian Finucane, Kate O’Callaghan
Director of photography: Kate McCullough
Music: Michael Fleming
Editors: Jordan Montminy, Will Harris
No MPAA rating, 91 minutes