After a six-month stint in Mountjoy, “Mad” Mary McArdle returns to Drogheda to find that everything and everyone she knew has changed.
Mary is forced to take a hard look at her friends, her future and herself. But does all this soul-searching and heart-aching make for a good picture?
The viewer is first introduced to Mary through voice-over. She is working on a speech for her best friend’s wedding. “The things you need to know about Charlene …” she says, over and over.
It’s a sweet sequence and contrasts humourously with Mary’s first interaction on the outside. As her mother’s Mini pulls up in front of the Drogheda train station blasting dance music, Mary shouts through the open window, “About fuckin’ time.”
The film first finds it focus in Mary attempting to get a date for Charlene’s wedding. With the clock ticking, the film barrels through potential suitors.
Dates are presented through a series of well-cut comedic montages. Men are dispatched in quick succession, and much of the humour in these sequences comes from the look of disinterested disdain on Mary’s face. What becomes evident is that Mary is less concerned with her date for the wedding than she is with Charlene’s opinion of her.
Back on the outside, Mary wants everything to be as before, but her friends and her family cannot allow it. As Mary struggles to put her old life back together, a blossoming friendship with Jess (Tara Lee), Charlene’s wedding photographer, takes centre stage.
There’s an uneasiness at the heart of the film. The audience is aware of Mary’s troubled past, and to some extent, aware of what she is capable of. Mary is hot tempered and quick to anger. We see flashes of this early in the film when she’s refused entry to a club.
In one sequence, she watches a YouTube video of the event that led to her prison sentence. We see the web browser from her point of view. It’s shot vertically, with a smartphone.
The image is intentionally unclear, but we get a sense of the situation; we hear more than we see. We are brought back to the earlier confrontation outside the nightclub.
Mary closes the laptop before we see too much. The audience cannot see the fight; the film won’t allow it.
The viewer’s experience with the film is similar to that of its characters. We want to like Mary, but are unsure about her because of her past, because of this underlying threat of violence.
In the title role, Seána Kerslake performs a balancing act. There’s an intensity to everything Mary does.
She is set off by little things: a wrong word or look results in verbal or physical confrontation. Again and again, characters tell Mary to stop cursing at them.
When Mary does show some vulnerability, or any other emotion, it’s with this same level of intensity.
I really felt the highs and lows of this film because Kerslake was so willing to express this rawness of emotion. This central performance is complicated, but the beauty of it is that the acting feels simple, unaffected and honest.
A Date for Mad Mary is a particularly brave picture, taking Yasmine Akram’s head-turning play and expanding on it in surprising ways. Darren and Colin Thornton’s script tackles difficult subjects with finesse and sensitivity. But it’s Mary that’s the bravest aspect of the film.
It’s my feeling that the audience isn’t really supposed to get on with Mary. She is sympathetic and I did root for her throughout the story, but I also felt uneasy in doing so.
Mary is mostly a good person, who is capable of some very bad things. This awareness of her violent past, coupled with some self-serving actions during the course of the picture, elicits contradictory feelings throughout.
At times, I wanted the best for Mary, at other times, not so much. The Thornton brothers draw a complex character.
Mary is charming and for the most part likeable, but often deeply unpleasant. The fact that I’m still wrestling with how I feel about this characterisation speaks to the quality of the film’s scripting, and again, highlights the depth of Seána Kerslake’s central performance.
A Date for Mad Mary is equal measures breezy and brooding. It’s a film that expresses emotion in every frame. I was taken in by the film’s earnestness and taken aback by its forcefulness.
Thornton isn’t afraid to make us feel uneasy, only to soothe us moments later with genuine sentiment. A Date for Mad Mary is as loveable as it is challenging.
This is an Irish film that deserves to be seen the world over.