'A Date for Mad Mary': Karlovy Vary Review

A Date for Mad Mary Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of KVIFF

A Date for Mad Mary Still - Publicity - H 2016

Mesmerizing actresses stuck in a mediocre movie.

Relative newcomers Seana Kerslake and Tara Lee headline rookie director Darren Thornton's adaptation of the play by Yasmine Akram.

Zac Efron and Adam Devine might be funny in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates’ but their brawny performances are no match for Seana Kerslake’s turn as a young woman just out of the slammer who needs, well, a wedding date in the independent Irish film A Date for Mad Mary. Debuting director Darren Thornton, who scripted the film with his brother, Colin, here adapts the theater monologue 10 Dates With Mad Mary from Yasmine Akram, a writer-actress best known for her role as Janine in season three of Sherlock. Thornton, who earlier directed a stage version of the text, has opened up the material cinematically even though the relationships with the characters often rely too much on clichés to supplement some of the film’s beautifully played wordless moments. Festivals and distributors with an LGBT-focus could program this as date-movie material in the indie mold.

In a series of long Steadicam shots, in depressing grays and blues, Mary (Seana Kerslake) leaves the prison where she spent the last six months for assault. She’s not exactly a tomboy but clearly one tough gal, likelier to have a scowl on her face than a smile — though neutral features with just a glimmer of aggressiveness in her deeply sunken eyes seem to be Mary’s default setting. At first sight, she might not be the likeliest maid of honor at anyone’s wedding but nonetheless that’s the role she’s been assigned at the impending nuptials of lanky childhood friend Charlene (Charleigh Bailey), with Mary’s release just in time for the final preparations. A bossy control freak, Charlene might be more worried about how her friend’s reputation after her time behind bars might impact her big day rather than worry about how her friend is actually doing. 

Is theirs a case of soured friendship or tough love? The duo’s love-hate relationship is suggested more in the silent moments and looks than through what’s said, with Bailey and especially Kerslake imbuing their scenes together with bitter, unspoken regret and the longing for the much simpler days of their childhood friendship. But this emotional charge can’t quite explain where they stand today and Thornton doesn’t give the two enough scenes together to draw a much more detailed picture.

As the full title suggests, Mad Mary actually isn’t about a bridesmaid being scorned at all, it is about her need to find someone who will be able to put up with her aggressiveness and domineering demeanor long enough to make it through Charlene’s wedding. Various candidates are tested, with Thornton playing these encounters for mild chuckles, frequently using references that will only mean something to pop-savvy audiences (John Carter of Mars and Stellan Skarsgard are two of the punchlines). But only one viable option really appears: Jess (Tara Lee), a sprightly wedding videographer with heavily contoured eyes and blonde frosted tips that suggest she spends enough time on her appearance for the both of them.

What Jess provokes is the film’s most fascinating but also partially problematic element. The fact same-sex attraction or even a relationship could be in the air doesn’t really seem to faze Mary all that much, which is a refreshingly contemporary take on a situation that would have probably developed into an overly familiar coming-out narrative even a few years ago. But by telling a story in which butch and angry girl with issues and without any sense of style is saved by the cute alt girl, the film nonetheless relies too much on stereotypes. And here too, like in Mary’s relationship with Charlene, there’s not quite enough material available to let these characters really become individuals beyond their rough outlines.

Despite his theater background, or perhaps because of it, Thornton seems to prefer characters that aren’t very communicative. This is a severe handicap when trying to fathom the depths of Mary’s emotional attachments to those around her but which unexpectedly turns into an asset in a handful of scenes. Notably, there’s a standout sequence in which she comes eye-to-eye with the victim of the violence that put her behind bars and it’s both beautifully played by Kerslake and gorgeously captured by talented cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (The Arbor, Listen to Me Marlon) as a succession of stilted but very telling looks.

Mad Mary is thus an uneven film in which light comedy sits alongside more straightforward drama and some strong individual moments that rely on silence stand out but other scenes would have benefited from clearer interactions between the protagonists. If anything, Kerslake and Lee leave enough of an impression to be able to use this film as a gateway to greater things; if they can be this impressive with material that often seems to block their characters from expressing themselves, just imagine what they could do with a text that’s tailored to their strengths.

Production company: Element Pictures

Cast: Seana Kerslake, Tara Lee, Charleigh Bailey, Denise MacCormack, Siobhan Shanahan

Director: Darren Thornton

Screenplay: Darren Thornton, Colin Thornton, based on the play 10 Dates With Mad Maryby Yasmine Akram

Producers: Juliette Bones, Ed Guiney

Director of photography: Ole Bratt Birkeland

Production designer: Kieran McNulty

Costume designer: Allison Byrne

Editors: Tony Cranstoun, Juangus Dinsmore

Music: Stephen Rennnicks, Hugh Drumm


No rating, 82 minutes