‘A Date For Mad Mary’ is that rare thing, an Irish film with a lesbian protagonist that gets it right, says Brian Finnegan.
The queer coming of age film is a genre within a genre, but it’s hard to imagine that writer/director sibling team Colin and Darren Thornton paid any attention to this notion in the course of making A Date For Mad Mary. Arguably Ireland’s first lesbian coming of age movie, it doesn’t employ any of the usual tropes – the disapproving parents, the oppressive community, the savvy mentor – instead opting to make its protagonist’s sexual orientation just a part of who she is, rather than the fundamental factor in her journey towards self-realisation.
Adapted from Yasmine Akram’s play, 10 Dates With Mad Mary, which was produced by Darren Thornton for the Drogheda based-theatre company, Calipo in 2010, the film follows Mary as she returns to Drogheda after a six-month stint in Mountjoy prison for assault and battery. She’s out in time to act as maid of honour at her best friend, Charlene’s wedding, but finds that while she was inside, things have changed – specifically Charlene has changed, reinventing herself as a social climber who wants nothing to do with the tough-girl sidekick she used to be.
As Mary grapples with Charlene’s tacit rejection, she searches for a date to be her plus-one at the wedding, and finds herself becoming friendly with Jess, a videographer by day and singer in a band by night. The friendship turns to romance and Mary finds herself torn between the idealised relationship with Charlene she craves, which once defined her place in the world she has returned to, and a softer new version of herself who is far removed from the girl who was nicknamed ‘Mad Mary’ by the denizens of Drogheda’s nightclub life.
While Akram’s play was suffused with rough and ready humour, the Thornton brothers strip much of this element away to give us a film that is for the most part monotonal, focusing in on Mary’s confusion and disappointment as the touchstones of her friendship with Charlene slowly dissolve and she’s left to confront her own alienation. There are moments of laughter, mostly provided by a deadpan Barbara Brennan as Mary’s grandmother, but they are few and far between. This could have been a big problem (and pathos used properly could have been a huge bonus), but at the film’s core lies a strength that puts the lack of comedy in the ha’penny place – Séana Kerslake’s riveting lead performance.
Granted, Kerslake has a lot to play with – Mary is one of those rare female characters in cinema, built with layers of complexity – but the actress (last seen playing a posh girl in Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse) embodies Mary with such pitch-perfect precision, you can see the teeming conflict beneath her deadpan stare constantly inching towards the surface. At almost every moment she’s both a rage-filled thug who might just blow off at any moment, and a vulnerable child in desperate need.
The romance between Mary and Jess is subtly presented, maybe a little to subtly with a cut-away from a kiss in a hotel room to both women looking mortified on a bus the next morning, but it’s genuine and believable, and it’s refreshing to see none of the usual flag-waving that comes with a gay character’s first sexual experience. It’s no surprise the film won the audience award at this year’s GAZE film festival – it’s that exceptional thing, an Irish queer film that actually gets its sexual orientation spot on.
Kerslake is surrounded by a deft and able supporting cast, particularly Charliegh Bailey as Charlene and Tara Lee as Jess, but this film announces her as a brand new Irish star. Here’s hoping we get to see her have a proper laugh or two in her next outing.
‘A Date For Mad Mary’ opens in selected cinemas on Friday, September 2. There will be a Q&A with director Darren Thornton following the 6.30pm screening at Dublin’s IFI on opening night, tickets here.
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