Conn Holohan finds himself on a date with Mad Mary. Darren Thornton’s debut feature screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
In what has been an exceptionally strong year for new Irish releases at the Galway Film Fleadh, no film captured the confidence and competence of Irish cinema in this seemingly golden period quite like A Date for Mad Mary. Deservedly receiving a standing ovation for its exceptional central performances and seamless ability to shift between the comic and the poignant, this moving story of friendship, family and love is note-perfect in its execution and provides real evidence of the depth of talent within Irish filmmaking at this moment.
In its barest outline, the plot of A Date for Mad Mary seems in danger of collapsing into a collection of well-worn coming of age scenarios. We meet Mary as she is released from jail just three weeks before her long-time friend, and fellow troublemaker, Charlene, is to be married. Returning home to take up her rightful place by her best friend’s side, however, Mary discovers that all has changed in her absence. Charlene prefers dinner with her fiancé to tearing up the town. Her role as Maid of Honour seems under threat from the charmless Leona, amusingly played by Siobhan Shanahan. Although Charlene remains friendly, Mary’s late-night phone calls to her go repeatedly unanswered. Her newfound pariah status is confirmed by the news that she will not be receiving a ‘plus one’ to the wedding, as the prospect of ‘Mad Mary’ being able to find a man seems an unlikely prospect to all, cueing the search for the eponymous date. The scenario seems set for a journey of discovery, involving a montage of awkward dates, an encounter with Mr Right, and a final, emotional reunion with Charlene, the true object of Mary’s love.
The brilliance of A Date for Mad Mary lies in how it knowingly negotiates all the potential pitfalls of genre convention: acknowledging them (there is indeed such a montage), but always veering away from easy laughs or expected payoffs. The intelligence of writing, direction and performance evident in the film ensures the emotional truth and complexity of the characters’ situations is respected throughout, never allowing any character to drift into a type. Whilst all of the actors deserve praise, in particular Charleigh Bailey for her performance as Charlene, a role which could easily have been played for Bridezilla laughs, special mention must go to Seána Kerslake as Mary. Her performance moves from explosive anger to touching vulnerability, whilst portraying the inherent decentness of a character who has done some less than decent things; and from the moment she shares a screen with videographer Jess (Tara Lee), their chemistry sizzles. As their relationship develops, and the emotional coordinates of Mary’s life begin to shift, the film quietly captures the simple pleasure of being in the presence of someone you find captivating.
Directed by Darren Thornton, and co-written with his brother Colin, A Date for Mad Mary manages the all-too-rare achievement of putting female characters and relationships on screen that feel honest and authentic, and absolutely unconcerned with the opposite sex: if there were a Bechdel test for men, this film would fail it gloriously.
A Date for Mad Mary screened on Fri 8 July 2016 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh