A Date For Mad Mary is the latest film to underline the current depth of talent in Ireland, writes Esther McCarthy
IRISH cinema is in rude health, with several new movies due this autumn set to prove that our Oscar success this spring was no one-off.
Of those, A Date For Mad Mary feels like a real game-changer — not just for its terrific young female cast, but for first-time film-maker Darren Thornton.
He has fashioned a funny, moving and gritty story out of Mary McArdle, who returns home to Drogheda after a stint in prison to find many of those closest to her have moved on. Undaunted, she sets about finding a date for the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Charlene.
It’s a movie with the legs to do well internationally — US film industry bible Variety called it: “instantly loveable”. Yet, Thornton admits, he was concerned he wouldn’t get it right. “It’s funny, in retrospect, now, I think a lot of it was to do with the fact that I was really nervous about making a first film and making a hames of it.
“Element (the film’s co-producers and distributors) were ready to go with it and I was like, ‘No. Let’s move that full stop from there over to there — now it’s much better.’
“I’d always wanted to make a feature film and I’d kind of done everything else. I’d done theatre, short films, television, and everything was all about getting to that point. But now I can look back and go, ‘You were fucking scared, holding back.’
“It wasn’t that I was worried about the material or worried about telling the story. With your first one, if you get it wrong, it can stop your career before it starts. You might not even get another chance.”
Thornton’s reticence was as understandable as it was unjustified. He was, after all, making the film in his hometown of Drogheda and co-adapting a play (along with brother Colin) of Yasmine Akram’s Ten Dates with Mad Mary, which he had produced years earlier.
There was a sense of loyalty to make the move from stage to screen seamless and authentic — but the film has been widely praised for how well written and rounded its female characters are. He also managed to do so with his hit TV series, RTÉ’s Love is the Drug. How does he get it so right?
“I’m always amazed that people are amazed by that,” he laughed. I don’t believe men are from Mars, women are from Venus, in the way that people are always saying. Are we really that different, or are we told that because that’s how people like to market things, based on gender? I think what it boils down to is human beings are human beings, they relate to each other in a very similar way.”
Still, they paid a great deal of attention to getting the characters’ language right. “Characteristically, friendships can be really intense between girls of that age. You can define yourself from being part of that relationship, which I think can be true for boys in some cases as well. I remember as a teenager being on the phone to female friends for hours. I always loved listening to them. I loved taking all of that in.
“What was great about filming in Drogheda was we got so much support from the local community. We got access to nightclubs and bars. Huge support from people who were extras for us.”
“Darren and Colin are either really good listeners, or they’re really good earwiggers,” says actress Seána Kerslake. “They obviously listen to conversation really well. With the script it was never, ‘Oh god I wouldn’t say that’, or talking about superficial things. It was never like that, and it was always what I would think to say next that was on the script. It was so fluid.”
Kerslake’s performance on screen as the troubled and troublesome Mary is being hailed as a major breakthrough and buzz is surrounding the young Tallaght actress.
“When I got the script I was like, ‘Oh my God’. I felt it was going to be special. And it struck me there there was a female lead and a strong female cast — and I thought that’s never happened before. I was getting to play this amazing, fully rounded girl.”
Further success beckons for Kerslake. “I take no credit for that at all. That was happening anyway!” says Thornton, smiling. “It was going to happen very soon, you could tell. One of the really refreshing things was that she could connect with the character in a way that other people couldn’t.
“But also there was a complete lack of vanity in the way that she approached it, which was really heartening and refreshing. She would just embrace everything, completely commit to it and go for it, and that’s really rare.”
If the film gets international distribution you feel certain the offers of further projects will come flooding in for both of them. But the brothers are already writing their next film, a relationship comedy drama set in the midlands. “We’re doing a film called The Rules of Engagement. It’s about a couple from the midlands, a young couple who are supposed to be getting married and they open their relationship. They’ve never been with anyone except each other, they freak out, and decide to have an open relationship so they can experience what it’s like to be with someone else.
“Most of our family grew up in rural Ireland so we spend a lot of time in smaller towns, and are interested in that world. I know so many people who married their childhood sweetheart, that’s a big thing in this country.”
ENJOYING THE BUZZ
Kerslake, meanwhile, is determined to enjoy the buzz around the film’s release along with co-stars Tara Lee and Charleigh Bailey, who plays the bride in the movie and has become a close friend off screen.
They are among many emerging young actors coming through in what seems like an incredibly buoyant period in Irish cinema. In Kerslake’s case, confidence came from being part of a group of actors (including Jack Reynor and Barry Keoghan) who experimented with their craft in Dublin’s Factory, now Bow Street.
“It was lovely, because it was like a little base, a little home. And because I didn’t know the industry at all it was introducing me to people and friends that I still have now, to a world that I didn’t know. There aren’t a lot of spaces where you can mess up. It was a place to go in and give it a go.
“What’s good about Ireland is you can be part of a film industry or a theatre industry without having to have four years of formal training, which is very handy for someone like me because I didn’t have that initially, and I wouldn’t be here if Ireland wasn’t that open, you know? I do think there’s a lot going on, a tsunami of talent if you will!”
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