Director: Darren Thornton Starring: Seana Kerslake, Tara Lee, Charleigh Bailey Running Time: 82 minutes
When tracksuit wearing, club loving ‘Mad Mary’ is released from prison, the expectations people in her life have for her are low. Best friend and bride-to-be Charlene never even considered that Mary might want a +1 for her wedding, or that she would be capable of writing a maid of honour speech on her own. Hen’s Night duty has been taken right out of Mary’s hands, she’d probably just want a few cans anyway, right? Its easy for her friends, her never-grew-up mother, her perspective suitors and the denizens of Drogheda to casually dismiss Mary, but little do they know just how complicated and capable she really is. Likewise, A Date For Mad Mary gradually reveals itself to be more than a simple wedding farce.
Though Mary’s stint in prison was relatively short, life has moved on considerably in her absence and her connection to Charlene seems to be fading rapidly. With Charlene so busy planning the wedding and spending time with new bestie Leona, the central relationship is mostly conveyed through voiceover, Mary’s attempts at writing a speech to show how much her friend since secondary school means to her. The writing helps to keep things firmly in Mary’s perspective from the beginning, making it easy to share her indignation at being sidelined or cringe in solidarity at the paltry selection of single men that Drogheda has to offer. Her point of view being so well established makes it all the more impactful when she makes huge errors of judgement and more significantly, when the audience’s understanding of Mary’s relationship with Charlene’s cool wedding photographer Jess pulls slightly ahead of her own. As it turns out, there’s more depths to Mary than even she knew. Luckily her performer is well up to the task of conveying it all.
Seana Kerslake is brilliant at keeping the various plates of Mary’s personality spinning. Her surly surface is an obvious front for a sensitive, quick-witted and even naive young woman. She’s relateable, but her anger issues still manage to bubble under the surface. Director Darren Thornton, who also wrote alongside brother Colin and staged the Yasmine Akram play that A Date For Mad Mary is based on, knows to keep the camera lingering on Seana’s face as it conveys one emotion before revealing another and maybe even a third.
Thornton allows details about the story, such as Mary’s crime or the development of her relationships, to come through gradually and naturally. He trusts the actors to find the depths written into the characters and to dig even deeper. Charleigh Bailey elevates Charlene, making her a shallow Bridezilla one minute to an understanding amd genuine friend with a rich history the next. While Jess is more straightforward, Tara Lee gives her a lived-in quality of self-respect. Both play well off of Kerslake, but the film doesn’t always keep the Mary/Jess dynamic as complex as the Mary/Charlene one. Even Jess says that Mary is “obsessed” with Charlene, by necessity the film has to have Mary let one love go before she can fully explore another.
A Date For Mad Mary transitions from wedding comedy to character study in a carefully managed way, never allowing a need for its lead to be ‘sympathetic’ to get in the way of her development. Bigger films than this have tried to make their leads so likeable that they can’t be interesting, or mistaken making them completely unlikeable with being ‘relateable’. Mary is easy to root for and understand, but she’s far from perfect. That balance, where she is allowed to make mistakes with consequences, confront them and move past them, is what allows Kerslake’s work to pay off and make Mary into a great character. Tackling post-prison displacement, alienation from peers and burgeoning sexuality with sensitivity and a sense of humour, A Date For Mad Mary is one of the strongest entries to Ireland’s recent cinematic hot streak.(4.5 / 5)