First Feature Competition

Irish director Darren Thornton’s debut feature is a deft crowd-pleaser. A sharp, funny script, great set of performances (including a truly first-rate lead) and a keenly sympathetic sensibility help make A Date for Mad Mary an undoubtable success.

In some ways Ireland’s answer to Rachel Getting Married, A Date for Mad Mary focuses on Mary, played with gusto by Seána Kerslake, who is desperate to secure a date in time for her best friend’s wedding. Released from prison at the beginning of the film, signs are immediately ominous for Mary when she finds no-one waiting for her at the train station. As the wedding day approaches, she finds herself increasingly frustrated with the bride’s apparent coldness towards her, as well as the chaotic, isolated life she quickly falls back into. Gradually, she strikes up a warm friendship with Jess (Tara Lee), the wedding photographer, whose character, to the audience’s relief, is one of the very few that treats Mary with respect.

“Romance is neither sentimentalised nor dismissed”

Mad Mary’s real strength lies in its compassion. Even the most villainised of the characters, Charlene, the bride (played with wonderful narcissism and superiority by Charleigh Bailey), is, in the throes of one speech, completely humanised. Mary herself, while very conspicuously flawed – aggressive, physically violent, reckless – is treated with complete doting sympathy, a feat sustained through the force of Kerslake’s performance.

The first half of the film plays out mostly like a defiant rumination on human loneliness, punctuated liberally with laughs. Towards the end, however (and the pacing is quite conventionally three-act), Mad Mary becomes more of a coming-of-age yarn, a story about identity and self-image. Sexual identity is explored, refreshingly free of the compulsion to label. There is very little moralising; even the premise (the need to acquire a date for a wedding) is interrogated quite even-handedly. Romance is neither sentimentalised nor dismissed.

For a first feature (Thornton had previously only made shorts), A Date for Mad Mary is an exceptional work. It manages to achieve accessibility not through any artistic compromise but through the universality of its subject matter. In every laugh, every hope and disappointment, the film is brilliantly, palpably human.

Louis Chilton
@LouisChilton

4/5

Image: Darren Thornton

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