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Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary, adapted from Yasmine Akram’s play 10 Dates for Mad Mary, is delightful because of what it doesn’t do. The titular Mary (Seana Kerslake – Dollhouse) has just been released from prison for assaulting a woman in a nightclub. Upon release, her best friend Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) is too preoccupied with her upcoming wedding to spend time with her. To prove to Charlene’s friends that she can get a man, Mary requests a “plus one” to the wedding. Finding a date proves difficult but Mary finds friendship in Charlene’s wedding videographer Jess (Tara Lee – The Fall).
Rather than sticking to its high-concept premise as one would expect, Mad Mary evolves as it continues into a refreshing and warm comedy-drama. Within the middle section of the movie, one totally forgets the film’s set-up as the plot continues to diverge in unexpected ways. Without spoiling, Thornton’s movie (co-written with his brother Colin), ultimately becomes a story about shattering conformity and letting go of what one does not need. This theme subtly sneaks up on the viewer, as we gradually become more invested in the lives of our central characters. In one scene towards the end, taking place in a bar, I became surprisingly tense during a simple two-character conversation, worrying that a character would do something to jeopardize the interaction.
The performances are terrific all-round but Kerslake and Lee deserve the true credit. Along with the Thorntons’ great script, both take characters who traditionally would be stereotypes and add depth and likability to them. Mary, because of her abrasive manner, her inner-city accent (Charlene asks her to work on it for her wedding speech) and her current predicament, could easily be the butt of the joke. Yet, Kerslake brings such a vulnerability and nakedness to Mary that makes one utterly empathise with the character. Lee does the exact same with almost the opposite material. With Jess’ dreams of being a musician, her upper-class accent and the way she is introduced, one would be forgiven for thinking she is essentially a hipster caricature but even that gets eschewed as the drama continues.
Despite being adapted from a play; the film looks cinematic. Jessica Kiang wrote for Variety that Ole Bratt Birkeland’s “warm-toned camera” manages to make Drogheda’s wet-night time streets look romantic, which is absolutely true. However, it never over-romanticizes its setting. Drogheda looks lovely but it still feels oppressive in the sense that everyone knows each other’s business and all people do is work and drink.
The film doesn’t always hit its mark. Charleigh Bailey’s character (despite stellar work by the actress) is, for the most part, a collection of Bridezilla stereotypes rather than a true personality. This is extra frustrating given that the brief moments where Bailey is given a chance to be three-dimensional, she nails it. That said, the Bridezilla scenes do often raise a chuckle (a Stellan Skarsgaard Mamma Mia joke is hilarious) and add a lightness to the film.
Mad Mary also features some nice incidental characters like Barbara Brennan’s Nan, who with just two scenes, gets the biggest laughs. In eighty-minutes (a four-star running time for these types of stories), the movie packs a lot of laughs and drama without ever over-staying its welcome. It’s ending is an appropriate blend of melancholy and hope. As well as a calling-card for all those involved, Mad Mary could have the same cross-over appeal of John Carney and Lenny Abrahamson’s work, and in Irish cinema that is high praise indeed.
A Date for Mad Mary is in cinemas now.
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