Review: 'A Date for Mad Mary' pulls out all the stops and none of the punches

Seána Kerslake's star-making turn reveals a woman on the verge of a nervous takedown of everyone around her

A Date for Mad Mary

Seána Kerslake stars in 'A Date for Mad Mary' [Element Pictures]

Interesting things are happening over at TV3. The channel, which burst onto Irish screens in 1998 with a mixture of British and American imports, weathered the post-Celtic Tiger storm by pointing live cameras at presenters of varying abilities for hours on end. Whether talking about make-up, healthcare, or caustically ripping politicians to shreds while refusing a hairbrush, TV3 kept on going, through thick and thin and thinner. But now, in the space of 18 months, it’s become the darling of Irish drama.

Red Rock brings its biweekly ratings boost, and now airs on the BBC and Amazon’s global video platform. Trial of the Century nudged the 1916 crowd with Nidge in tow, while Smalltown, Gerard Barrett’s three part series starring Pat Shortt, arrives this week. And TV3 has also helped to finance A Date for Mad Mary, arguably the best Irish film of the year and a further reminder of the strength of the Irish film industry.

There really is something about this Mary. Directed by Darren Thornton, who also directed Yasmine Akram’s one-woman show on which the film is based, creates a truly affecting story about an angry young woman.

Mary McCardle, fresh from an unspecified stint in Mountjoy Women’s Prison, isn’t an easy sell. Played in a truly mesmeric performance by Seána Kerslake, Mary is gobby, ballsy and aggressive, looking like a cross between Scarlett Johansson and Shelley Duvall, she storms around the damp grasslands of Drogheda’s housing estates in an oversized denim jacket and greasy hair. She’s the kind of girl you avoided at all costs in school, a weapon who could wound you with a look, and would. Her quick wit is outpaced only by the speed at which her anger boils to the surface, catching bystanders in its wake.

Yet, Kerslake also makes Mary incredibly charming, heaping nuanced layers of frustration and moodiness onto something very funny. It’s impossible not to chuckle at her caustic one-liners. “She lost the weight,” bride Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) says, after explaining that Mary is to be joined on bridesmaid duty by Leona. “I’m sure she’ll find it again,” Mary returns.

Black sheep attending weddings is nothing especially novel on the big screen, nor is the demanding bride – though Charlene’s frustrations with Mary, and her cousin’s enunciation while singing from the altar, are as relatable as they are honest. Mary is Charlene’s maid-of-honour, but given that Charlene never visited her in prison, it fast becomes clear the role is more of a duty than a desire for the bride. Stripped of her plus-one for the big day, Mary struggles to defy the disappointed expectations of everyone while her best friend all but ghosts her. Working on her speech for the reception between shifts in a chipper and coming face-to-face with her past, Mary also works on finding a date to bring with her on the day, hoping that that can pull her back into the fold she is drifting further and further from.

Tara Lee and Seán Kerslake wandering through the streets of Drogheda [Element Pictures]

There follows a series of dates, offering Kerslake’s brilliantly expressive face and dry delivery a run of irresistibly funny moments. In the end, out of nowhere, the only person she strikes an affinity with is Jess, the enigmatic wedding photographer. Those expecting this to turn into An Lú is the Warmest Colour from the trailer will be disappointed, but the slowly building attraction is underplayed by fizzling moments of fury, self-destruction, and bitterness. And sweetness too, balanced with plenty of jokes that land like Mary’s punches. That Tara Lee’s Jess is a bit one-note and underwritten in a film that could have packed a few more scenes into its tight 82-minute running time is a shame.

A Date for Mad Mary is an unflinchingly honest look at Irish women, bolstered by a star-defining turn by Seán Kerslake. Offering no easy answers to the many difficult questions it raises, we get a sense that Mary is the kind of woman who is not guaranteed a happy ending, not least until she manages that temper. But the snappily ever after will leave you wanting so much more.

A Date for Mad Mary, 15A, 82 minutes, Released: September 2nd

Verdict: ★★★★☆ An instant classic of Irish cinema, Kerslake’s madness will have everyone raving about a new Irish movie star