Raw, rancid anger rose from the screen throughout In A House That Ceased To Be, a tough to watch documentary about humanitarian campaigner Christina Noble. The film, a winner at the recent IFTA awards, was no hagiography and at moments Dubliner Noble seemed a prisoner to her furies– rather than finding strength in adversity, a case could be made than her justifiable outrage over her traumatic childhood had soured into a toxic wrath.
Then, would any of us have turned out differently, had we suffered as her family had? Noble was ten when her mother died – because her father was an alcoholic, she and her three younger siblings were put into care. Alas, this was 50s Ireland, when the church ruled with an iron crozier, and the horrors inflicted upon the kids, callously separated and placed with sundry Dickensian orphanages, were incalculable (the documentary, arguably wisely, appeared to gloss over the worst of it).
As an adult Noble channeled her pain into her crusading work on behalf of street children in Vietnam, South America and Central Asia. But as In A House That Ceased To Be communicated explicitly, campaigning had not made her whole – indeed, the harder she tried to escape her upbringing the more she was defined by it.
In heart-rending interviews, her siblings likewise came across as beaten down and extraordinarily – and understandably – resentful toward Ireland. The exception was Christina's brother Sean, told by the nuns his sister had died when he tried to contact her following their initial forced separation. In an excruciating reunion at his home in Austin, Texas, he sat at the end of the sofa, pale and distant, as his sisters nattered. He flinched every time his name came up – though he loved his family, their presence had brought him back to the torments he had endured as an orphan and it was too much. Was it wrong to feel he would have been better off left in forgetful isolation in Texas?
Documentaries of this nature routinely descend into glorified puff pieces. If anything, In A House That Ceased To Be suffered from the opposite problem in that it didn't work very hard at making Noble multidimensional. She was combative and short-fused and swore like a plumber. No doubt this captured aspects of her personality. But there was surely more to her than a hard-charging outsider whose anger was scalded on her face like burn-marks. If so, In A House That Ceased To Be failed to uncover it and the result was a film that engaged with the viewers emotionally but did little to enhance our understanding of the extraordinary woman at its heart.