Maybe Irish writer-director Darren Thornton is the only person to dream of a celluloid mashup between John Hughes and Ken Loach, but if there’s anyone else wondering how that unlikely combo might play out, then Thornton’s witty and affecting debut feature A Date for Mad Mary will provide an entertaining answer to your curiosity.
Like the much-cherished US teen flicks of yore, a strong narrative hook allows the story to access the emotional heartland of a young person’s journey towards adulthood. In this instance, the quest for a suitable beau to partner protagonist Seána Kerslake at her longtime best pal’s upcoming nuptials highlights the gulf that time has opened between the two girls.
It’s the sort of material that could easily roll out in bland Middle America, but here we’re in Drogheda, mid-way between Dublin and the Irish border, and the fact that Kerslake’s ‘Mad’ Mary McArdle has just been released from a juvenile detention centre makes everything just that bit more social-realist. No one quite imagines this girl – obstreperous, lippy and often a great laugh – in a bridesmaid’s coordinated outfit, which is just where her problems, and indeed the film’s poignant insights, lie.
“I guess the starting point was whether you could take the DNA from those 80s movies, the John Hughes and the Cameron Crowes, but also borrow something from the Ken Loach school, without shortchanging either side,” reflects Thornton, a Drogheda native himself, who has taken the best part of a decade to bridge the gap from 2007’s multi-award-winning short Frankie to this feature bow.
Watch Darren Thornton’s 2007 short Frankie
“Could you have this strong comedic idea, but then actually make it with real people? And I suppose how we found our way through that was to have the central character be someone whose very presence is unpredictable. The problem with clever plotlines is that they can sometimes be pretty low on emotional investment, so we tried to bring in someone the audience would not at all be sure about at first, but who’d draw you in the more you saw of her, so eventually the you’d get really invested in her need to make that connection with another human being.”
That is indeed exactly how the film works its spell, where Kerslake’s bolshy but somehow vulnerable central performance is rooted in the writing’s complete understanding of her circles and her milieu. Somehow it’s not so much of a surprise to learn that Thornton and his co-writer brother Colin have spent much of their time in community theatre – working throughout Ireland in outreach programmes involving young offenders and early school leavers – such is the sense on screen of a filmmaker in home territory. In fact, the film sprang from a stage project he’d earlier developed with actress Yasmine Akram into a one-woman monologue titled 10 Dates for Mad Mary. The brothers turned it into a screenplay when Akram’s own acting career took off after she was cast as Benedict Cumberbatch’s love interest in the BBC’s Sherlock.
“Colin and myself had basically got bogged down in writing ‘the greatest script of all time’, which became this endless unfinished project,” explains Thornton, with a rueful smile. “At least we knew where we were going with this, and the deeper we delved into Mary’s predicament, somehow the more personal it became. I think a lot of people can chime with her feeling of being at the starting gate when everyone else has got a headstart on her. I know I did. I’m a 40-year-old man and all my friends are married with kids. I’m in a relationship, but I’ve not reached that point yet. Instead I’m spending all my time scrabbling around trying to get films made, which just seems like the most frivolous thing you can do with your life in comparison.”
Like, say, Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love or P. J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding before it, Thornton’s film extracts plenty of bittersweet yearning from its seemingly specific and localised confines. That’s to some extent a by-product of choosing a somewhat reserved, classical style rather than the loosey-goosey handheld camera of a film over-determined to flaunt its youth appeal.
Thornton suggests it was essentially about privileging Kerslake’s performance. “The power of the material was in being able to watch Mary try to process everything that’s happening to her. To spend the time staying close, even to feel her boredom – not something you want to say to your producer, by the way – so a lot of what we were doing with the camera was basically chasing that stillness. The first half of the story doesn’t really have an antagonist, so we needed Seána to draw the viewers in, then the second half would basically take care of itself.”
Which is essentially also where the story’s disarming LGBT angle also kicks in. Best not to give too much of the game away, but the Thornton brothers have found a way of giving events a genuine romantic frisson – and perhaps also throwing more light on the relationship between Mary and her best friend Charlene – by running a few changes on the original play, in which Mary paired off with a man. Here too, the real world offered guidance, as Colin’s work on an all-girl theatre workshop in Belfast was something of a revelation.
“They all had gay male friends whom they adored,” says Thornton, “but none of them had any female gay friends. It was as if that orientation just wasn’t valid for them, and it got pretty heated, so of course that absolutely opened doors in writing the screenplay… though we worried that the conflict in our story would somehow seem a bit old-hat by the time the film got released in Ireland, after the result of the gay marriage referendum.”
In the event, a strong embrace from the LGBT community was just one element of the film’s success at the Irish box office, and if Thornton is understandably disappointed that the British distributors are only seeing fit to release it on the small screen, a successful London Film Festival showcase helped attract industry interest, as befits the latest Irish talent.
Since then, he and his brother have just been awarded script development money by the Irish Film Board for their new project Here Comes the Night, another comedy reflecting Ireland’s changing social values. “It’s about a couple from the midlands who’ve been together since they were teenagers, but they start worrying that they’ve had no sexual experience with other people, so they give each other licence to have an affair,” explains Thornton.
“They hope it’ll put them at ease, but sex with strangers proves a bit more destabilising than they’d expected. Maybe that’s what happens when Tinder gets involved, but I just hope we can get this done quicker and shoot it while it’s still current.”