'Game of Thrones' Star to Head James Joyce Biopic

Aidan Gillen Littlefinger

Aidan Gillen’s next role is very un-Littlefinger-like.

After this weekend’s Game of Thrones finale, “Petyr Baelish” actor Aidan Gillen should have a little more time on his hands. As per Deadline, though, he’s already found a new project: he’ll be leading the indie production James and Lucia with a portrayal of celebrated Irish author James Joyce.

The film, an emotional portrait of the writer’s later years, will explore James’s doting relationship with his eponymous daughter — she was, briefly, a successful dancer, even taking a small role as a toy soldier in Jean Renoir’s The Little Match Girl. Lucia’s star fell before it could ever really rise, though: troubled by an unstable, migratory childhood, fraught familial relationships, and romantic rejection, she became a one-time patient of Carl Jung in her twenties, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

For all his part in her unsteady upbringing, James proved himself a devoted father, never faltering in his efforts to protect his daughter from the attempts of others to inflict on her the popular “remedies” of the time — namely, lobotomization and institutionalization, a particularly horrible prospect given the period’s attitudes towards mental illness.

Lucia’s life has long been shrouded in secrecy: her private diaries and the bulk of letters between her and her father have been destroyed, while the Joyce estate keeps a tight hold on any remaining documents, sealing them to the public and barring academics from quoting them.

As you might expect, though, this caginess has only encouraged more curiosity. Lucia’s relationship with James was drawing interest in the 20th century (most notably from famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), but in the last 13 years alone, it has provoked new intrigue, having inspired two biographies, two plays, and one graphic novel solely dedicated to this father-daughter bond — a remarkable feat when you consider the relative dearth of primary material on the two. James and Lucia will be the first feature film in this line, though, so it’s poised to expand public interest into this enigmatic, tragic figure at the centre of James Joyce’s life beyond the previous works’ reach.

Some will draw parallels between Gillen’s involvement in the project and his role in Game of Thrones, given the controversial claims that have dogged the Joyces’ father-daughter relationship since Lucia’s first psychiatric consultations. Some of the psychiatrists who saw her, and a minority of academics who have since studied the two, have alleged that Lucia’s illness stemmed from the trauma of incest, either at the hands of her older brother, Giorgio, or James. If acknowledged in the film, these claims would undoubtedly influence the way the Joyces’ familial bonds are depicted and would require James and Lucia to take on a much graver air than is presently hinted at.

Gillen’s experience playing Littlefinger, who could never decide whether he loved Sansa Stark as a daughter or as a daughter-wife (a la Gilly’s father, Craster), would certainly be of relevance here. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll see these allegations alluded to in James and Lucia, since academically, these claims remain little more than contentious conjecture, and legally, their inclusion in the film would likely put a litigational curse on production, given the Joyce estate’s zero tolerance policy on this issue in the past.

Instead, we should expect a less controversial — but by no means boring — film from writer-director Robert Mullan (the helmer of the psychiatry-themed Mad to be Normal). Based on its initial description, James and Lucia should follow the trend of recent works in sensitively exploring the emotional complexity particular to the Joyces’ father-daughter relationship, as well as the literary legend’s struggles with his own health: namely, the painful deterioration of his eyesight, which threatened completion of his magnum opus, “Finnegan’s Wake.”

Given that Lucia was spurned by her mother, who refused to see her after her diagnosis, and was considered by her brother to be an obstacle to the realization of her father’s literary genius, the endurance of her positive relationship with James is all the more poignant and worthy of cinematic attention. Despite the difficulties imposed upon them by health complications, their relationship was, by most accounts, innocent and mutually adoring.

The two were so close that they shared a secret language – which possibly informed the apparently nonsensical style characteristic of “Finnegan’s Wake” — and it was he who fought most vehemently against the idea of locking her away in an asylum. Unfortunately, the latter battle was one Joyce could never win, given the scarcity of other options for psychiatric care at the time, but his steadfast devotion to his daughter remains evident in the lengths to which he went to secure her some peace and wellbeing in a world determined to serve her spiteful ignorance and cold apathy.

Given that Gillen is best associated with the sly, chaos-causing and orphan-making Littlefinger, it might be hard to imagine him in the role of a genuinely doting, protective father. But the Irish actor has proved himself adept at defying pigeonholed expectations, having put in strong performances across a diversity of genres: as principled good-guy member of the resistance in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, out-of-touch, penny-pinching father in Sing Street, and deeply insecure lothario in the UK’s Queer as Folk.

In James and Lucia, then, we can expect Gillen to embody the title role with similarly acute intensity, and imbue this cinematically untold story with a fresh sense of stirring, heart-breaking emotion.

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