Monday 19 March 2018

An Irish gem: the making of Mad Mary

Intense: Seána Kerslake plays Mary ­McArdle, a young lady with issues, in new Irish film A Date for Mad Mary
Intense: Seána Kerslake plays Mary ­McArdle, a young lady with issues, in new Irish film A Date for Mad Mary

Paul Whitington

While the international success of Room and Brooklyn earlier this year might have suggested a thriving indigenous cinema industry, Ireland remains a challenging environment for film-makers. Finance and facilities are hard to obtain, the best projects aren't always the ones that get backing, and really good Irish films are rare beasts indeed.

Happily, a number of very strong ones are coming our way, and the best by far is Darren Thornton's refreshingly original comic drama A Date for Mad Mary, which opened here yesterday. It may, in fact, be the best Irish film I've seen since Lenny Abrahamson's Garage, and it boasts a truly remarkable performance from a young actress who's surely bound for big things.

Seána Kerslake is Mary McArdle, a young lady with lots of issues. As the film opens, she's being presented with her personal effects by a prison guard at Mountjoy, where she's just finished a stretch. And when she returns to Drogheda to reconnect with her friends and family, Mary finds that much has changed. Her best friend, Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) is about to get married, and seems anxious to distance herself from the hot-headed and socially awkward Mary.

Poor Mary can't understand why Charlene is reluctant to go drinking with her, and struggles to accept that their relationship has fundamentally changed. And when Charlene insists she find a plus one for the wedding, Mary embarks on a series of disastrous blind dates that are enlivened but also doomed by her blunt refusal to put up with any nonsense.

Things are looking bleak until she falls in love with a young singer - who happens to be a girl.

A Date for Mad Mary paints a vivid picture of contemporary Ireland, warts and all - in perhaps its most moving scene, Mary is working in a chip shop when the girl she went to prison for assaulting comes in, and both women freeze. It's salty, but never grim, and also very funny, a drama with an ensemble cast of female characters who are not victims, or sex objects, but real, flesh-and-blood women.

The most impressive thing of all about Darren Thornton's film, however, is the intensely visual way in which it tells its story. Most Irish movies are interminably chatty and feel like transplanted stage plays, but in A Date for Mad Mary, the words are sparse, and telling, and most of the time we only know what's going on by reading the expressions on Seána Kerslake's compellingly expressive face. Last week I spoke to her and Darren Thornton about how they'd come to make this extraordinary feature.

"The film was adapted from a play that I directed called Ten Dates with Mad Mary," Thornton told me. "It was a monologue written and performed by Yasmine Akram back in 2010, and we toured it around Ireland and brought it to Edinburgh in 2011. Audiences found the play really funny and loved the character, and I felt it could really work as a movie.

"After the tour finished, I asked Yasmine would she be happy for myself and my brother Colin to work on an adaptation - she gave us her blessing and away we went!"

Getting a film made is no easy business, and Mad Mary was in development for several years. "We started working on the screenplay in 2011," Thornton recalls, "and we shot in 2014. But to be honest, I think the screenplay really benefited from that time in development, we worked with Emma Norton at Element Pictures and Emma was extremely instrumental to us getting the screenplay into shape and getting the film made."

The finished feature moves tersely through Mary's turbulent homecoming, and broader, comic scenes are interspersed with telling moments of stillness in which Thornton's camera rests in close-up on her wounded, bewildered face. "I really like films that allow the audience to get physically close to the characters and observe the minutiae of what's going on with them moment to moment," he says.

"When we cast Seána, we knew we had someone who was so subtle and so nuanced as an actor that we would have the licence to follow through on this. So it wouldn't feel like the film just jumping from one event to the next, it would really feel like we were hanging out with the character and sharing in everything that was happening for her emotionally."

Ultimately, though, the film stands or falls on Seána Kerslake's performance: she's in virtually every scene, and is given a huge amount to do. It's her first starring role, but Thornton had no doubts about casting her. "It was very clear to me with Seána that she was going to be a big star and that it was just a matter of time, so we were really fortunate to get her when we did. I loved working with her, she's such a smart, subtle actor. She commands the screen and yet she commands it by doing so little, and that takes remarkable confidence. She deserves all the plaudits coming her way."

The 25-year-old actress cut her teeth in theatre productions and short films, and had small supporting roles in Kirsten Sheridan's Dollhouse, and Yorgos Lanthimos' acclaimed drama The Lobster. But Mad Mary represented a challenge of a different kind. "As soon as I saw the script," she tells me, "I really wanted to be part of it, because it was a special script, and something different you know. It just came so fluidly and quickly and you knew exactly what the character would say next. It felt very natural."

Mary McArdle is an extremely intense individual, angry, quick to take offence and prone to violence, an exhausting person to inhabit one imagines, though Kerslake tried to stay in character during the shoot as much as she could. "You wanted to stay with her, but during lunchtime, say, you'd have to switch off, because if you sat in that, without letting it out for an hour, you'd kind of go crazy.

"So it was a balancing act during takes, and sometimes if they were reloading the camera or something, you'd be going, no I'm ready, I have to go now or I'll burst! It was tough balancing all that anger and sadness and loneliness, and then going straight from that into comedy. At times it felt like you were trying to keep the lid down on a boiling pot."

With its lean dialogue and soul-searching close-ups, A Date for Mad Mary represented a fierce examination of Kerslake's technique, and her almost constant presence on screen left little room for error.

"I very rarely looked at the monitor for playback during the shoot," she tells me, "because I didn't really want to. I just put all my trust in Darren: I knew it was his baby and he knew exactly what he wanted, so I trusted he was pushing me towards the right things.

"And I kind of like not having to speak too much - it's nice to just kind of sit in an emotion and ride it out and see where it takes you. You're just trying to find the emotion and the truth in the moment as you go.

"When you're shooting," she says, "you don't really know how good or bad it's going to be, you don't really know what you have till the end, when you get an audience. The first time we saw it with a crowd was at this film festival in the Czech Republic: we were blown away by the response that we got, it was kind of crazy.

"So then when we came to Galway for the film festival, we were like, this is the real test, will Irish people like it? But we got a great response there as well. I love the fact that it's so Irish in some of its humour but then its story, its themes, are universal."

For all Mary's faults, Seána Kerslake is almost defensively loyal about her. "Straight away I realised, you know, there's more to this girl," she says, "and in a way you're always quite protective of your own characters - I mean she's got a lot going on, you know! But I liked the fact that she isn't completely likeable, and that there's more to her than meets the eye."

Kerslake has been acting since she was a small child, and even juggled roles in stage plays and short films while somehow - "I do not know how!" - completing an arts degree at Maynooth. She still works part time at a library, but one suspects A Date for Mad Mary is going to change all that. Meanwhile, she's "keeping the head down", and trying not to look too far into the future.

"With all of this," she says, "well I'm just trying to enjoy it while it's happening, because it goes past very fast."

If you watch one film…

Jack Nicholson retired a few years back, and younger readers may only remember the sometimes hammy and overblown turns of his later career. But in his prime, he was as good as anyone, and rarely better than in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Milos Forman's drama based on a Ken Kesey book swept the boards at the 1976 Academy Awards, winning Nicholson the first of three acting Oscars. It's being shown on Thursday night on Sky Movies Drama, and is worth watching or recording because it really stands the test of time.

Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey's novel back in the early 1960s, and played its protagonist, Randle Patrick McMurphy, on the stage. But by the time a film version got green-lit in the early 1970s, Douglas was too old for the role. So Michael Douglas, who was producing, asked Nicholson. He delivered an electrifying turn as McMurphy, a jailbird who feigns madness in order to get transferred to an insane asylum he imagines will be a much cushier way to serve his time. But he meets his match in Nurse Ratched, a remorseless ward sister who has him in her sights. It's a very funny film, but also a moving one, and its climax is unforgettable.

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