Nora (2000) from Tuna, and Mick Locke

Nora (2000) is an Irish biopic of the relationship between James Joyce (Ewan McGregor) and the love of his life, Nora Barnacle (Susan Lynch).


Susan Lynch shows her breasts in two sex scenes, and a full frontal in the second one

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Full-screen format

  • bare bones

In 1904, the two set out for a tour of Europe, despite the fact that she barely knew Joyce. They settled in Trieste, where he got a job with the Berlitz language school. Joyce, of course, was one of the greatest writers of the last century, and Nora was a simple country girl. Though she was never his intellectual equal, she was his muse and inspiration. The film chronicles their 10 years in Trieste, during which they had two children. The biggest problems between them were his jealousy, the fact that he was desperately trying to write and be published, and his inability to stay away from the bottle.

Despite the positives, the story never truly engaged me. It was too much like history, and not enough entertainment for my taste.

Mick Locke's thoughts in yellow:

In Ireland, folks cuss different than they do here. The same words mean different things there than here. In 1981, while hitchhiking through Ireland, I asked a truck driver what he thought of Ronald Reagan. His self-effacing reply was, "Why that old cunt? He’s not fit to be president of Ireland." ‘Twas the first time I’d ever heard "cunt" used to tag a man.

In Ireland, when folks are "pissed," they’re inebriated, not angry. You haven’t been double crossed if your boss "fucks you over." Rather, he’s cussed you out. One mother lamented that her adult son had ruined his health "by drinkin’ and faggin’." He hadn’t been cruising gay bars, but rather smoking cigarettes.

It’s rare to come across these usages in print. You gotta hear ‘em from the Irish. Last night I caught one while viewing "Nora," a biopic which chronicles the young years of Nora Barnacle and Irish novelist James Joyce. The scene in question occurs at night in a humble rented room, with your man crashed out on the bed. Across the room, his forlorn mate sits, assessing her lot. She’s unskilled, uneducated, and penniless. She’s come by train across the continent to Trieste, Italy, where she can’t speak the language. She’s Joyce’s woman, but not his wife. It’s her first day in-country, and he left her sitting alone for hours on a park bench, even after nightfall. He was off clinching a job, meeting people, and having drinks. Now she’s fed up. What to do?

Nora sighs, climbs onto bed astraddle Jim, pulls off her smock, and says, "Fuck up. Fuck up, love." She’s not urging him to commit a blunder. Rather, "Get it up and we’ll get it on." Where else in life are you gonna hear that expression in that context? (Actually, now that my wife’s watched the same flick, I myself have hopes…)

Nora’s man, James Joyce, is noteworthy now, nearly a century after they met, for having written "Ulysses," which landed first place on everyone’s list of best 20th century novels. Joyce spent his adult life mismanaging and drinking away their meager cash while Nora cooked, cleaned, made love to him, bore and raised their two children. As a writer, he was brilliant. And, after a shaky start, he produced several masterworks.

This film concerns that shaky start, and the inspiration Joyce garnered from his lusty lifelong romance with Nora. He was a Dublin swell with impressive education but little income. She was a working girl from Galway who made beds and waited tables at a Dublin hotel. They met on the street one day, which is where, on the night of their first date, she first got him off. Joyce had a renowned command over words, but clearly Nora was the one with the moves.

The film depicts five erotic events with only two fleeting glimpses of nudity. (Nudity: a quick, close frontal glimpse of Susan Lynch’s diminutive but pert breasts. A more sustained sidelong view of Susan and Ewan, doggie style, then frontal view of beautifully hirsute Susan.) But it’s clear that hot sex and troubled love were what this couple had in common. For source material, Joyce mined Nora’s life, heart, fantasies, and his own mistaken jealous speculations - these latter causing her much heartache.

Despite financial backing from Irish and European arts groups, this film’s biographical accuracy must in part be doubted. One hopes they’ve presented plotline and events accurately. But I doubt that so mirthful a writer as Joyce sustained so lugubrious a tone in his daily life as depicted here. As James Joyce, Ewan McGregor looks too well fed and round faced. And in trade for Joyce’s fine tenor singing voice, we have McGregor’s baritone croak. But McGregor’s portrayal is sincere and fervid. As star and co-producer, he deserves credit for getting this film made at all.

As Nora, Susan Lynch captivates our attention with her focus, range, carriage, brogue, and great beauty. Her lush lips, fiery eyes, and wealth of hair (in all the right places, ahem) are delicious to behold. Likewise, the costumes, props, hairstyling, and settings in 1904 Dublin and Trieste deserve note.

Novices to reading the worthy works of James Joyce might first choose his book of stories, "Dubliners," with attention to "Eveline," "Araby," and "The Dead." Thereafter, read the "Viking Portable James Joyce" and then "Ulysses." ("Dubliners," by the way, is contained in toto within the VPJJ, as is Joyce’s excellent first novel, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," making the VPJJ an excellent buy, especially in durable hard cover. If all you wanna do is read a few rich pages of his masterwork, "Ulysses," you might choose its last forty-four pages, Molly Bloom’s interior monologue.)

Three stars out of five on the movie.

Scoop's notes in aqua:

Nora Barnacle is, in a sense, one of the most important contributors to world literature, just as Shakespeare's dark lady contributed without writing a word. Molly Bloom and some of Joyce's other female characters are based closely on Nora. The one characteristic that places Joyce so near the top of Literary Olympus is his understanding of - and willingness to deal frankly with - female sexuality. He had a lifetime companion with a deeply sexual nature, and she discussed her thoughts frankly with him, allowing him to possess a detailed map of a swampy region which most male writers find unnavigable. I wanted to know more about that, so the film gave me a wee bit of insight.

In a broader sense, "Nora" failed my ultimate test for a biopic - "if I watched this, and didn't know it was about famous people doing actual things, would I like it?". No, not much. I enjoyed a moment here, a moment there: some of the sex scenes were honest and passionate, the duet they sang was a haunting Irish ballad called "The Lass of Aughrim" with unusual harmonies (they sing a longer version over the closing credits). On balance, however, I would have asked "why did they make this movie"? Since I do know it was about Joyce and Nora, I know the answer - "to tell people more about important historical characters". My conclusion is the same as Tuna's - watch it if you want to learn some history, or to gain a quick Cliff's Notes level of understanding about Nora's importance in Jimmy's life. I liked it on that level. Skip it if you hope for broader entertainment or a well-structured artistic experience with emotional depth.

The Critics Vote

  • BBC 3/5

  • Lynch's performance garnered her an IFTA (Irish equivalent of an Oscar) Best Actress.

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: trial only in the USA - failure - it grossed $12,000 on four screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. (All reviewers)

Return to the Movie House home page