Love’s Bitter Mystery – A Covid Triumph

A Film Review by Renée Huish

The film will be available to stream from 11 June 2022 at Scene. Click here for film trailer.

Choosing the setting of the now somewhat derelict, gothic, post-gold-boom mansion, Villa Alba in Melbourne’s Kew, to film Love’s Bitter Mystery was a masterstroke.

It is here that the magic of this new portrayal of the young James Joyce comes to life from the hand of writer Steve Carey, through Director of Carly Wilding, cinematic genius Jak Scanlon, and a dedicated and talented cast, and crew. Frances Devlin-Glass, of Bloomsday in Melbourne fame, presided as Creative Director.

So what did I expect from a movie that was originally written as a screen-play, cancelled for performance three times due to Covid, adapted for film, and filmed in seven days on a budget that must have challenged all previous Australian shoestring records.  Shooting took place amidst further Covid lockdowns and severe restrictions on use of inner space. A change of Director mid-2021, the replacement of some cast members were further hurdles that were overcome by the courageous Bloomsday In Melbourne/The Scene partnership. 

Steve Carey draws mainly on what we learn of Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. But his research is wide-ranging and I was drawn to a Jungian interpretation of many aspects of the script. His perceptiveness brings us inside the mind of James Joyce, revealing his tentative journey to manhood through the mutual attraction and love between Jim and Nora Barnacle. 

All photos (screengrabs from film) by Jak Scanlon, Film-maker.

Hayden Splitt as the menacing Fr Dolan
Jim (Tobias Miller) celebrates in Paris with a gift from his Mother (Dublin).
Jim is played by Tobias Miller

Jim Joyce (Tobias Miller) emerges from adolescence, traumatised by the death of his mother (Rebecca Morton) and the scars of a Catholic boarding-school upbringing. Tobias brings an endearing boyish nature to his interpretation which I found captivating. The gentle feminine nature of his dying mother stands in sharp contrast to his fear of the sadistic power-wielding Fr Dolan (Hayden Splitt). 

Jacqui Whiting as Nora Barnacle with Tobias Miller as Joyce

A chance meeting with Galway girl Nora Barnacle (played by Jacqueline Whiting) reveals an immediate rapport and the tentative early signs of their enduring and mutually supportive relationship. This gave me a new and more sympathetic understanding of the nature of Joyce and the strength of Nora.

Nora presents a woman of great stature and presence. The meeting of minds of these kindred spirits is at once equal and strong yet immediately trusting and intimate. She wistfully tells him that when they are together ‘my loneliness fades away’. When he confides to her that he has visited a local brothel, she questions what happened with genuine curiosity and then remarks, ‘all men are eejits’.

The alacrity with which she agrees to head off to Paris with him also brings out her indomitable adventurous spirit. 

May Jasper as guide to Joyce’s head, Moses.

Reminiscent of the ‘everyman’ character in medieval plays the transitional device of the use of the Moses Guide throughout the film was very effective. Scene and time changes were explained by The Guide’s (May Jasper) ‘Puck’-like presentation of the narrative, her friendly face as she darted around made the scenes run smoothly whilst also providing a light effective balance. 

Music was one of Joyce’s great loves and the musically talented director Carly Wilding and violinist Kylie Morrigan used it to great effect to set the various moods of the film (Emma Austin as musical director prepared the actor/singers for the stage show that didn’t eventuate but some of that music remained to build mood). The strains of a single violin conveyed poignancy at times, humour at others, and contextualised in time that beautiful sense of Irish melancholy.  

The constraints for lighting and sound were overcome and adapted effectively to heighten the Gothic atmosphere, as were placement of cameras and the use of clever camera angles. 

I loved the final scene of Jim and Nora exiting hand in hand for the train, whilst in the mansion on a white draped chair Cranly places a single ripe fig. 

Joyce and Nora leave Dublin 1904.

Love’s Bitter Mystery surpassed all my expectations and gave me a new curiosity to explore Nora more.

 On a critical note, as a proud Galway woman, I find the seeming need to ask Australian actors to adopt an Irish accent to be somewhat jarring. Their own voices are perfectly adequate. But perhaps the Dublin launch of the film will be the forum in which this may be addressed. 

The Arts in Australia have been somewhat starved of Federal funding over the last decade, and no financial support was forthcoming for artists in all fields during the pandemic. I suspect that it placed huge financial, as well as logistic restraints on the production team. By contrast, the Irish Government via the Embassy in Canberra, much more friendly to the Arts, generously stepped up to support the production. 

The decision of Bloomsday in Melbourne in partnership with arts-streaming service, Scene, to launch into these uncharted waters and forge ahead to overcome all obstacles has resulted in a landmark contribution to the celebration, understanding and promotion of the life and works of James Joyce.  From adversity comes strength.

Renée Huish 

Renée is Irish-born and bred, and has acted and directed in theatres around Melbourne for several decades. She directed A Stretch of the Imagination for Bloomsday in Melbourne.