Irish Film Review: A Date for Mad Mary

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DIR: Darren Thornton • WRI: Colin Thornton, Darren Thornton • PRO: Juliette Bonass, Ed Guiney • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Tony Cranstoun, Juangus Dinsmore • DES: Kieran McNulty • CAST: Seána Kerslake, Tara Lee, Charleigh Bailey, Fionnuala Murphy, Chris Newman, Kelly Byrne

 

It’s no surprise that Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary was joint winner of Best Irish Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh, or that Seána Kerslake lifted the Bingham Ray New Talent Award for her role as Mary. From the very start, it is clear that this is an accomplished film with authenticity and heart at its core. While a coming of age movie, it manages to skilfully avoid the clichés which viewers may have come to expect, offering a new and interesting perspective on the genre.

We first meet Mary McArdle as she returns to her home town of Drogheda, having served six months in prison. Her best friend Charlene, consummately played by Charleigh Bailey, is getting married in three weeks and Mary, as maid of honour, has immediate work to do. This doesn’t simply involve wedding duties; she must renegotiate her place in a seemingly familiar world which appears to have changed irrevocably, particularly in terms of those in it. The most important person to her is bride-to-be Charlene, the change in whom is the most difficult for Mary to understand. No longer interested in the life they once enjoyed, Charlene judges Mary for, among other things, her failure to aspire to or fulfil the same desires as her.

Mary’s role as head bridesmaid is at once an honour, and a stick to beat her with as she appears to embody everything Charlene, and fellow bridesmaid Leona (Siobhan Shanahan), are disdainful of. Her only support comes from mother Suzanne (Denise McCormack). Indeed, Mary is seen as such a disaster by her friend and fellow bridesmaid that she couldn’t possibly need a plus one for the wedding, and she thus sets out to prove them wrong by finding a date.

Her quest is a source of gentle humour, and her subsequent compelling relationship with singer and videographer Jess (Tara Lee) is a joy to watch unfold on foot of its organic and understated development, and the chemistry between the pair.

As we embark with Mary on this tempestuous three weeks in her life, we see that she’s right about some things, but perhaps not them all.

A Date for Mad Mary is beautifully written, directed, performed and shot. Its power and richness lies in its subtlety and the personal, upfront nature of its narrative. It might have been tempting to utilise the character of Mary to offer something of a social commentary given her particular circumstances, but the focus on the personal and individual is refreshing and allows an intimate relationship to blossom between Mary and the viewer.

The strength of the casting is such that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in each of the parts. In particular, Seána Kerslake’s performance is strong and measured, and she evokes great sympathy, even at Mary’s worst moments. Charleigh Bailey imbues Charlene with great believability, and there is a palpable truth in every scene they share.

Authenticity and subtlety lend a wonderful simplicity to the film without belying the depth and complexity of its characters and narrative. Honest, human and genuine, A Date with Mad Mary is not one you’ll want to miss.

Emma Hynes

82 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

A Date for Mad Mary is released 2nd September 2016

A Date for Mad Mary – Official Website

 

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Review: David Brent: Life on the Road

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DIR/WRI: Ricky Gervais • PRO: Ricky Gervais, Charlie Hanson • DOP: Remi Adefarasin • ED: Gary Dollner • DES: Anna Higginson • CAST: Ricky Gervais, Tom Bennett, Jo Hartley

 

It has been over twelve years since Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom, The Office, concluded with a Christmas Special after two highly successful series. In utilising the mockumentary to offer a commentary on the docusoap, and its capacity to turn ordinary people into celebrities overnight, it spawned an iconic character in the form of paper merchant manager David Brent, whose unfulfilled dreams of stardom see him take the opportunity to shine when a camera crew come to film daily life at his workplace, Wernham Hogg. When his awkward attempts at fame go desperately wrong, there is great pathos and sympathy for him, despite his shortcomings. By its conclusion, however, things appear to be looking up for David, and it ends on a positive note of acceptance, hope and humanity.

While we’ve encountered David Brent a number of times since, mainly courtesy of Comic Relief, David Brent: Life on the Road constitutes his big screen debut, and the first in-depth catch-up with the character. Yet again, Brent is being filmed for a documentary, though this isn’t always obvious.

Working as a rep selling domestic and sanitary products, Brent has yet to give up on his dream of stardom. In The Office, his main aim was to show his comedic prowess with music as a sideline, but now, we find him wholly focussed on getting a record deal by reforming his band of old, Foregone Conclusion, of which he is now the only member. The comedy does have an outlet, however, both unintentionally in pieces to camera, and in the form of his office antics which are starkly at odds with those of the rest of his colleagues. That is, with the exception of Nigel (Tom Bennett) who wholeheartedly subscribes to Brent’s farcical performances, questionable gags, and prop based japes. He’s the friend Brent always wanted, minus the idiocy of Gareth Keenan.

The 2016 office is a different place, however, and their fellow workers are colder and more hostile. If the staff of Wernham Hogg showed occasional deference to their manager, irrespective of their personal thoughts, there is no such requirement here as Brent is their peer and not their boss. Brent and Nigel are irritants, particularly to Jezza (Andrew Brooke), a rep whose disdain has a disconcerting edge to it.

Despite confessing to having had a nervous breakdown after The Office, Brent doesn’t appear to have a heightened consciousness of how he might be represented on screen, and persists with the same type of jokes and remarks.

The gags and comments that he delivered daily on the stage that was Wernham Hogg saw him continually called out by his employees and bosses for misogyny, sexism, homophobia and racism, and each instance was generally followed by blustered attempts on his part to clear his name or deflect it on to someone else.

There is no subject off limits for laughter when it comes to Life on the Road, and while Brent makes some effort to claim he’s entitled to make similar gags, for example, by bringing rapper Dom Johnson (Doc Brown) into the office to prove ‘how sensitive I am to difference’ after human resources pull him up over a misogynistic joke, in the main, he largely goes unchecked. Where he does desperately wish to portray himself as tolerant and inclusive is in the lyrics of his songs.

The focus is very much on Brent throughout as he goes ‘on tour’ over a period of eleven days. This is fodder for those inclined to mock, but receptionist Karen (Mandeep Dhillon) and colleague Pauline (Jo Hartley) appear to have genuine concern and goodwill for him even if they are subjected to questionable conversations and baulk at some of his carry on.

His twentysomething band, which includes Razorlight’s Andy Burrows on drums, along with sound engineer Dan (Tom Basden), are a serious po-faced lot whose contempt for their lead singer and employer goes from barely concealed to completely undisguised. It appears that Brent now lives in a world which has forgotten how to laugh, despite his best, and worst, efforts.

The bridge between David and the band is Dom, played by Doc Brown with whom Gervais co-wrote and performed Equality Street for Comic Relief in 2013. But while Dom is David’s ally, he is similarly frustrated at his penchant for putting himself front and centre, the lyrics he has Dom rapping to, and his lack of support with regard to his own career. Pouring money into the venture, including from his pension fund, the question is, will all of this pay off and see David Brent finally fulfil his dream of getting a record deal?

As with The Office, Life on the Road makes you laugh, cringe and even choke up in parts. There are quality performances across the board, including great cameos from Kevin Bishop and Diane Morgan, and while I did rather like the way The Office ended, and found it a tad dispiriting to find Brent in the same position so many years on, it is a particular delight to see Ricky Gervais back on screen reprising the role as exceptionally as you might expect.

“On the road is where I really come alive” Brent grins at one point, thus imbuing the film’s title with more than the sum of its parts.

He has retained his sympathetic form, not only on foot of the fact that he is out of place and step, but because he is a man who simply refuses to give up on his dream. This ensures a certain admiration for him, particularly against the backdrop of a world which treats him poorly, even if it’s deserved at times. There is also a strength in him that has clearly built up over time, and mention is made of his resilience, which even he doesn’t appear to know he has.

David Brent: Life on the Road is a meditation on many things, the most abiding of which are likely to be the importance of humanity, resilience in the face of adversity, and the entitlement to dream.

Emma Hynes

95 minutes
16 (See IFCO for details)

David Brent: Life on the Road is released 19th August 2016

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Review: Iris

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DIR: Albert Maysles • WRI: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen • PRO: Carl Apfel, Iris Apfel

There is something both poignant and apt about the fact that Iris would be Albert Maysles’ final film. Taking 93-year-old, New York fashion icon Iris Apfel for its subject matter, the movie is as much a meditation on old age as the celebration of ideas and the act of creation; not least on foot of the fact that Maysles himself was aged 87 at the time of its premiere at the 2014 New York City Film Festival, and Iris’ husband Carl turned 100 during filming.

 

Through Maysles’ hallmark style, we witness the world according to Iris, and it’s a privilege to pass through it, albeit fleetingly. A woman for whom living life on her own terms and following her gut instincts have proven hugely rewarding, Iris’ astute business skills and flair for interior design have seen her creations make their way into the White House via her company Old World Weavers.

 

As Iris herself observes in the documentary, while a well known figure on the fashion scene, a 2005 exhibition of her astounding clothing and couture jewellery collection brought her very much into the limelight. We learn about this experience through a combination of Iris’ recollections and footage of the exhibition which took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was entitled Rara Avis, or Rare Bird. Maysles’ documentary manages to convey just how apt this name is for a collection belonging to such a unique individual. Another wonderful inclusion which complements his work is a montage of Carl Apfel’s photography which gives us a sense of the life they lead together, travelling the world to bring back material and artefacts to populate their company’s designs.

 

While all of this, together with footage of more recent events, provides a vivid context for Maysles’ documentary, at its heart is the intimate portraiture he creates of a truly free-spirited human being and her beloved husband as they recall their lives and negotiate old age together. For the most part, this is conveyed with humour, but it is not without its pathos.

 

Maysles succeeds in capturing a significant truth about Iris; while she managed to create a name for herself and forge a successful career on the New York fashion scene, none of this appears to have been achieved by conforming to anyone’s expectations. A piece is as likely to catch her eye in a thrift shop as on the catwalk, and it is immensely refreshing to find that it is her innate love of colour and style that drives her choices and lies at her very core, and this emanates from her, transcending more than her years.

 

Anyone expecting to achieve an insight into the New York fashion scene or the city itself won’t find this in Iris. They will, however, be rewarded with something far greater; an enriching and honest personal account of the triumph of individuality and creativity over conformity and conventionality.

 

Iris’ movements are more often than not accompanied by the clinking and rustling of her remarkable jewellery. Maysles’ last film opens to this sound alone, and in these moments before an accompanying visual appears, it is as if both his creation and Iris’ are being permitted to resonate, much like their collective legacies.

Emma Hynes

83 minutes

Iris is released 31st July 2015

 

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Review: Queen and Country

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DIR/WRI: John Boorman • PRO: John Boorman, Kieran Corrigan • DOP: Seamus Deasy • ED: Ron Davis • DES: Tim Pannen • MUS: Stephen McKeon • DES: Anthony Pratt • CAST: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat Shortt

 

It has been almost 28 years since John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical work Hope and Glory (1987) brought us the story of nine year old Bill Rohan’s life during World War II. Boorman’s sequel Queen and Country opens in 1951 and we again meet Bill, now aged 18, as he is conscripted into the British Army against the backdrop of the Korean war.

Boorman’s film is beautifully shot and brings the period faithfully to life, conveying the dread, frustration and resentment resulting from the obligation of two years national service on the part of young men.

Callum Turner’s performance as Bill is consistently engaging, as is that of David Thewlis in the role of Bradley, a to-the-letter army man railing against the insubordination he encounters from the conscripts. Indeed, it appears intended for Bradley to initially evoke derision, but I often found myself out in sympathy with him.

Bill’s roommate Percy Hapgood is a striking character, if only for the fact that both he and the exaggerated nature of Caleb Landry Jones’ performance appeared somewhat at odds with the rest of the film. There is no doubt Percy is unhinged, and this makes the strength of his friendship with the sensitive, gently humorous Bill hard, at times, to fully invest in.

While the film does offer something of a window on post-war peacetime Britain, most of the action takes place in the barracks where Bill and Percy get into scrapes with varying consequences and often with the help of skiver and trickster Redmond, performed brilliantly by the exquisite Pat Shortt. They rarely leave it, and when they do, there is a limited glimpse of the world outside, thus conveying the claustrophobic nature of their young lives. In such instances, the drama centres mainly on their attempts to woo members of the opposite sex and these are scenes which prove endearing.

There is an interesting conflict between the senior army personnel’s vision of nation, war and military service and those of Bill in particular which adds weight to the proceedings. Despite the military subject matter, the film is bathed in a nostalgia which, while aesthetically pleasing, when combined with efforts to make the work comedic, tends to dilute the gravitas of some of its more tense moments. The film is, however, bookended with two meta-scenes in which a camera is seen shooting footage on the Thames, reminding us that what we are seeing is a dramatisation.

While the humour and nostalgic ambience are there, and identification is fostered via the notable use of close-ups which work effectively as portraiture and encourage an intimacy with the characters, it is regretful that this film left me feeling rather detached from it. Individual performances from those such as Richard E. Grant (Major Cross), David Hayman, who reprises his role as Clive Rohan, and the aforementioned Callum Turner and Pat Shortt were excellent, but when looked at as a whole, I felt the piece didn’t entirely hang together as it could.

Unwarranted spontaneous and exhuberant laughter, Percy’s often jester-like performativity, and the oscillation on the part of the military between farcical silliness and faithful adherence to military mores sometimes jarred, though perhaps these incongruities are easier accepted if viewed from the perspectives of the young Bill and Percy.

The pleasures of Queen and Country lie in its beauty, its performances, its privileging of personal perspectives and its gentle look at a period in British history which is seldom portrayed.

 

Emma Hynes

114 minutes

15A (See IFCO for details)

Queen and Country is released 5th June 2015

Queen and Country – Official Website

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Violette

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DIR: Martin Provost • WRI: Martin Provost, Marc Abdelnour, René de Ceccatty  PRO: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto • DOP: Yves Cape • ED: Ludo Troch• DES: Thierry François •  MUS: Hugues Tabar-Nouval • CAST: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet

 

Martin Provost’s Violette (2013) charts the life of French writer Violette Leduc (Emmanuel Devos) from her exile in the French countryside during World War II through to the publication of her most famous work, La Batarde, in 1964. This, like previous works by Provost, focuses on female experience and, like his 2008 film Séraphine, is a biographical portrayal of a female artist.

 

While the film is divided into chapters, the majority of which own the name of an influential person in Violette’s life, these characters appear and engage with one another throughout, and so the divisions function more as both a nod to the literary theme and as indicators of influence rather than actual defined, compartmentalised sections of the narrative.

 

Leduc’s story from birth into adulthood is one of rejection, frustration, loneliness and unrequited love. The film, while taking a forward trajectory recounting her experiences from her thirties onwards, is simultaneously retrospective as a result of Violette’s life being painfully and relentlessly influenced by her past. She begins to write her experiences down following encouragement by the infamous French writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py) with whom she lives in exile and trades on the black market.

 

While this appears to be the only contribution of value that Sachs makes to her life, a chance visit to one of his friends further justifies his role. This is where Violette encounters and steals Simone De Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, thus prompting her to approach De Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) with her own unpublished literary offering, and starts her on the uncertain but ultimately life-changing road to finding both herself and her place as a revered and respected author.

 

While De Beauvoir’s belief in Leduc’s talent and capacity to advance the cause of feminism through female literary endeavour sees her champion her work and induct her into esteemed intellectual circles, her attention does not extend to either an emotional or romantic attachment. This proves to be the source of much pain and anguish for Violette who is clearly in love with and highly dependent upon her mentor.

 

Indeed, De Beauvoir is portrayed as a cool, even icy character who keeps others at a distance, and whose relationship with Violette, as she perceives it, is something of an intellectual transaction whereby she has identified talent and promise, and furthers it for the good of literature and the female cause. However, Violette’s behaviour and personality perhaps make this an essential response. Indeed, during one isolated instance in which De Beauvoir breaks down and opens up, Violette quite predictably fails to offer words of comfort, instead thinking of her own feelings on the matter, and this sees DeBeauvoir revert to her former coolness. While perhaps diluting one’s perception of the purportedly strong relationship between the two women, it is easy to see why it may have been necessary for De Beauvoir to keep this difficult person close, yet at a remove.

 

Violette is a somewhat sympathetic character, but she is simultaneously portrayed as difficult, selfish, and hard to please. Her incessant hand-wringing and inability to psychologically surmount her illegitimacy, her troubled relationship with her mother, and her emotional rejection by De Beauvoir and others can prove somewhat challenging in a film of 139 minutes, especially when her life makes great strides for the better and she continues to find reasons to despair and be dissatisfied.

 

Despite her mother Berthe (Catherine Hiegel) cutting a formidable dash and holding the burden of responsibility for Violette’s low self-esteem and loveless childhood, there are occasions when she is caring and attentive to her daughter, and Violette’s inability to either acknowledge or allow herself to enjoy the maternal tenderness she has been so lacking further demonstrates her complexity and contributes to the, at times, perplexing viewing experience. When a character declares, “I’m scared of dying and sorry for being in the world”, it is difficult for the viewer to envisage any progression. However, DeBeauvoir makes her best endeavours, declaring, “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere. Writing will”.

 

If both Violette and DeBeauvoir are for the most part difficult to warm to, they are nevertheless intriguing characters who are the subject of excellent performances by both Devos and Kiberlain. In addition, there is much pleasure to be found in the beautiful exposition of both Violette’s natural surroundings and the act of writing itself. She seems to find solace in immersing herself in both, and as a result these scenes prove the most enjoyable, not only because they are visually striking, but they show an anguished character experiencing the happiness any viewer would desire for her.

 

As with any biopic, certain parts of the character’s life can only be alluded to, and Provost’s film certainly has this writer interested in learning more about its troubled protagonist and her works. If Violette can be challenging at times on account of Leduc’s outlook, and unnecessarily long at 139 minutes, its rewards lie in its visual beauty, exposition of the art of writing, and intriguing subject matter.

 

Emma Hynes

15A (See IFCO for details)

138 minutes

Violette is released 3rd October 2014

 

 

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Pulp: a Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets

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Emma Hynes wheels a trolley through the aisles of Florian Habicht’s film that captures both the essence of the band Pulp and their 2012 return to Sheffield to play out their final ever concert in the UK.

 

In 2011, Pulp fans were euphoric to learn that the band would embark on a series of concerts after a nigh on ten year hiatus. In 2012 the tour would conclude with a performance in their home town of Sheffield, director Florian Habicht (Love Story, 2011) would be on hand to document it, and the result is Pulp: a Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets. Opening the acclaimed Sheffield Doc Fest on 7th June, the film was screened simultaneously in over 100 cinemas across the UK and Ireland, and followed by a live Q&A with both band and director.

 

Anyone who has read the booklet accompanying a Pulp album will have encountered the following nota bene: “Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.” In his book, Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics (2011), Jarvis Cocker explains, “This is because the words only exist to be part of something else, a song, and when you see them on a printed page you are seeing them taken out of their natural habitat – away from that ‘something else’” ( as appeared in an exclusive extract in The Guardian).

 

Much like this magic fusion of lyric and melody, Pulp are inextricably linked to the city of Sheffield and its people, and the threads of all three are woven together to form the tapestry of their unique world view. One-night stands, nature, joyriders, mothers, the elderly, loneliness, unrequited love and unrealised dreams are variously their subject matter, and the ordinary is made extraordinary through its combination with heart rending, uplifting and evocative melodies.

 

Florian Habicht does a wonderful job of absorbing this synthesis of band, city, people, words and music and reflecting their interdependence in a thoughtful and unassuming documentary. Interviews with band members, fans, and the people of Sheffield are interspersed with images of the city, its inhabitants, and footage of Pulp’s live performances, both past and present. Their music, which naturally provides the soundtrack throughout, acts as a binding element, and, as with lyrics and melody, the visual and aural become magically intertwined.

 

Far from a warts and all behind the scenes style music documentary focusing solely on the band and privileging revelation, Pulp: a Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets offers a modest selection of pensive musings on the part of band members concerning their own lives and work while celebrating Pulp’s origins and outlook. The city and its people, both young and old, are given a voice, and it is variously dignified, stoic, wise, uplifting and wry.

 

The live performances are genuinely moving in their beauty. Often in slow motion, they capture the very special nature of the live concert experience; an irretrievable series of moments for which there are often no words. Habicht’s privileging of music over voiceover during such sequences allows their significance to resonate. If words are included, they compliment the image rather than detract from it.

 

In the abovementioned book, Jarvis explains, “Pulp was the perfect name for the band because this was an attempt to find meaning in the mass-produced and throwaway world that was, after all, what we were surrounded by on a daily basis. To sift through and find some beauty in it all. Take a look – it’s there”. Florian Habicht has immersed himself in Pulp’s Sheffield, and successfully uses for his palate the self-same colours that animate the band’s musical artistry.

 

While the temptation naturally exists to intellectualise art of such quality, a refreshingly excitable Habicht revealed at the Q&A that he actively avoids doing so with regard to his subject matter, thus leaving himself open to whatever presents itself. Considering that the world brought to life by Pulp is one of raw lived experience, it’s entirely appropriate that a film about the group would be approached in this fashion.

 

Pulp: a Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets is a beautiful, moving and life-affirming documentary which celebrates a truly unique band and the world from whence its members came. Its triumph lies in its creation of a visual document which mirrors the synthesis found in Pulp’s work.

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