A Date for Mad Mary. Element Pictures, 2016.
Directed by Darren Thornton. Screenplay by Darren Thornton and Colin Thornton. Produced by Ed Guiney and Juliette Bonass. Adapted from the one-woman play 10 Dates with Mad Mary (2010) by Yasmine Akram. Starring: Seána Kerslake, Tara Lee, Charleigh Bailey, Denise McCormack, Siobhan Shanahan.
Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary tells the story of a young woman returning to her hometown following a stint in prison. ‘Mad’ Mary McArdle is an angry, aimless twenty-something with a history of alcohol abuse and violent behaviour. She returns to a community where she is out of place and treated as an object of ridicule. Her sense of alienation is exasperated by her best friend Charlene’s upcoming wedding. In a bid to impress Charlene and rebuild their once close friendship, Mary frantically searches for a date to bring to the wedding. In the process, she meets and unexpectedly falls for Jess, the female wedding photographer. A Date for Mad Mary is a thoughtful, honest, and often very funny, exploration of a young woman’s struggle with her identity and relationships.*
A Date for Mad Mary offers us a portrait of a deeply troubled and immature young woman. Portrayed by Seána Kerslake, Mary is a female character of rare complexity. She is full of contradictions, capable of being funny, kind-hearted, loyal and honest, but also, mean, aggressive, selfish and temperamental. As an audience, we can sympathise with her difficulties, while often being repelled by her actions. More than anything, Mary is presented as a confused and angry young woman who is unable to properly acknowledge the consequences of her actions. A Date for Mad Mary is truly a comedy-drama, balancing serious issues like substance abuse and violence, with moments of levity and humour. Kerslake never plays Mary as a comedic character. Her sullen, deadpan reactions are often a source of humour in the film as she awkwardly stumbles her way through a series of disastrous dates and social situations.
A Date for Mad Mary has much in common with other wedding-centric films like Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Bridesmaids (2011). All three films focus on female protagonists whose best friends/sisters upcoming wedding pushes them towards a crisis point in their lives. For Mary, Bridesmaids’ Annie, and Rachel Getting Married’s Kym, the prospect of their loved one getting married is deeply distressing as they fear that it will permanently alter their relationship with that person. Also, the looming wedding serves as a reminder of failings in their own lives. All three films feature young women who are stuck in a state of arrested development. All three are without a stable romantic partner, fulfilling career or financial stability, and are often besieged by a sense of inadequacy when compared to their more ‘successful’ contemporaries.
Mary shares many personality traits with Rachel Getting Married’s Kym. They are both deeply immature, prone to childish pettiness, and are unable to deal with their emotions in an adult way. For both women, substance abuse problems and legal troubles have led to them becoming estranged from their loved ones and communities. Just as Kym tries to use her sister Rachel’s wedding as a chance to reconnect with her family, Mary uses her status as maid-of-honour to reinsert herself into Charlene’s life. Like Kym, Mary is greatly angered when she feels she is being excluded from the wedding preparations and her frustration often manifests itself in fits of self-destructive behaviour.
Meanwhile, Mary shares Annie’s distress at the prospect of a valued friendship being lost or altered. In Bridesmaids, the news of her best friend Lillian’s engagement fills Annie with a sense of dread as she fears that she will not have a place in Lillian’s new life. Her insecurities are stoked by fellow bridesmaid Helen, Lillian’s glamorous, wealthy new friend, who Annie feels the need to compete with for her old friend’s attention. Similarly, Mary uses the wedding preparations and her position as maid-of-honour to remind Charlene of the importance of their friendship and to prove that she can be part of her new life.
Mary’s wedding speech is used as a framing device throughout the film to explore our protagonist’s state of mind and her relationship with Charlene. The first lines of dialogue spoken in the film are from a draft of the speech:
“The things you need to know about Charlene… Me and her have been thick as thieves since we were nine… Charlene is loyal and honest and a very good person… if you’re friends with her she’ll always have your back… hard times will always reveal true friendship. And ours is very true, ours is the most true, ours is…”
Although the speech is intended as a celebration of their friendship, there is a note of uncertainty in Mary’s voice as she attempts to convey the closeness of their relationship. Her time in prison, and the changes in Charlene’s life, have clearly put a strain on their friendship. The reoccurrence of the phrase “the things you need to know about Charlene” serves to show how little Mary truly knows, or understands, about her friend. The speech she is trying to write seems to be strung together from Mary’s fragmented memories of their relationship. At several points in the film, the audience is confronted by the differences between the Charlene we see on screen and the tough, hard-partying girl that Mary describes. It is clear that Mary is holding onto a past vision of Charlene and is unable to accept this more mature and domesticated version of her friend.
Social media is used as a way of signalling to the audience that these two women have grown apart. The character of Charlene is initially present through pictures and her voicemail, giving a sense of the already fractured nature of the relationship. Her Facebook page reoccurs throughout and serves as a visual representation of how Mary no longer fits into the life that Charlene has constructed for herself. Surrounded by her fiancé and a smiling group of friends, the image of herself that Charlene presents in these pictures is far removed from the version of her that Mary clings to. Mary’s inability to view their friendship clearly and honestly mirrors her uncertainty about her own identity. Mary’s bedroom walls are covered with photos of her and Charlene, including around her mirror, showing how she constructs her entire self-image from their relationship.
When Mary returns to her hometown of Drogheda she is immediately confronted by how out of place she is in Charlene’s new world. Their reunion takes place in a bridal shop, with Mary entering while Charlene is trying on her wedding dress. In this setting, Mary is surrounded by visual reminders of how much Charlene’s life has moved on in her absence. We get the sense that Charlene has undergone a transformation recently. Mary’s childhood bedroom is covered with pictures of the two girls in earlier times. In these images, Mary and Charlene are clad in matching outfits, sporting similar hairstyles and make-up. Now in her mid-twenties, Mary still maintains the image that she had as a teenager. In her tracksuit bottoms and unkempt hair, Mary looks shabby and out-of-place in the pristine surroundings of the shop. Meanwhile, Charlene appears confident and immaculately groomed in a chic outfit with sleek hair and make-up. She is no longer Mary’s tough girl companion from their school days. Instead, she appears to be a mature, stylish young woman who is looking forward to settling down and embarking on a new phase of her life. This greatly irritates Mary, who longs for their friendship to return to what it once was. Although she is genuinely happy for her friend, Mary is frustrated by the change in Charlene. While Charlene is preoccupied with wedding plans, Mary longs for boozy nights out.
Like Bridesmaids’s Annie, much of Mary’s frustration is directed towards a ‘rival’ bridesmaid. The character of Leona seems to have usurped Mary’s place as Charlene’s best friend and confidant. In Charlene’s eyes, Leona has many of the desirable qualities that Mary lacks. She is well-dressed, well-behaved, reliable, and most importantly, willing to do whatever Charlene tells her to. Unlike Mary, she is in a committed relationship and is a permanent part of Charlene’s social circle. It is clear from their first onscreen interaction that Leona and Mary have always had a bad relationship and share a mutual dislike for each other. Given Mary’s treatment of her, it is hard to blame Leona for disliking Charlene’s old friend so much. Mary is openly antagonistic towards Leona, routinely mocking her boyfriend and her weight problems. Leona is also dismissive towards Mary, frequently making spiteful comments about her, and both women openly resent each other. Leona is jealous of the bond Mary and Charlene share and is obviously put out that Charlene chose Mary as her maid-of-honour. Meanwhile, Mary is greatly annoyed that Leona seems to have replaced her as Charlene’s best friend and is resentful of how much time the two women spend together.
Although she still cares about Mary, Charlene often seems uncomfortable with having her around and is clearly embarrassed by her friend’s behaviour. Charlene seems to want Mary in her life but only on her terms. She is critical of the way Mary dresses and behaves and even insists that she take elocution lessons in preparation for giving the speech at the wedding. Charlene’s controlling nature is also shown when she decides to write Mary’s maid-of-honour speech for her. The inauthentic, saccharine speech that Charlene produces highlights her desire to reinvent both herself and her past. This conflict over the speech highlights the core problem in their relationship: the discrepancy in how these two women view their friendship and their shared past. While Mary revels in their past, Charlene is embarrassed by it and literally tries to rewrite it.
Apart from Charlene, Mary seems to have little care for other peoples perception of her. However, she is fully aware of her reputation in the local community. Her erratic, sometimes violent behaviour has made her a punchline among her peers, earning her the nickname ‘Mad Mary’. In one scene, she watches an old YouTube video entitled ‘Mad Mary Kicks Off’, that shows her getting into a fight with another girl in the schoolyard. Mary becomes greatly frustrated when she feels that people are mocking or looking down on her. Her determination to find a date for the wedding is initially sparked by a comment made by Leona. During the scene at the bridal store, Leona and Mary get into an argument during which Leona spitefully remarks that Mary has little chance of finding anyone who would be willing to date her. When she discovers that Charlene isn’t giving her a plus-one invitation, Mary resolves to prove them wrong by finding a date.
Charlene’s need for Mary to fit a certain image is clearly influenced by Mary’s and possibly her own, bad past behaviour. To Charlene, an Instagram-perfect wedding, a beautiful house and a gaggle of fashionable, grown-up friends, signify success and maturity. Although she is driven by a constant need to impress Charlene and salvage their struggling friendship, Mary quickly becomes resentful of the demands that Charlene puts on her. Mary is greatly annoyed by the changes she sees in her friend, particularly when Charlene appears insincere and overly obsessed with perfection. In a way, Mary’s attraction to Jess is a response to Charlene’s controlling behaviour. For Mary, Jess is an antidote to Charlene’s image-obsessed, materialistic social circle. She is completely lacking in pretence and possesses a sense of individuality that Mary immediately finds intriguing. She is honest and non-judgemental and, unlike many other characters in the film, seems to like and accept Mary for who she is. The two women quickly become friends, forming a close bond despite their very different personalities. Soft-spoken Jess is impressed by Mary’s bluntness and willingness to speak her mind. While Charlene wants Mary to pretend to be something she’s not, Jess values her honesty and individuality. Despite their close bond, both women are taken completely by surprise when their friendship grows into a romantic relationship.
As the title suggests, the plot of A Date for Mad Mary is driven by Mary’s dogged search for a date to bring to the wedding. When we first meet Mary, she seems to lack any interest in pursuing a romantic relationship or settling down. Her relationship with Jess comes as a shock not only because she didn’t expect to be attracted to a woman, but also because she previously had no real interest in finding any serious romantic partner. She appears to have little experience with romantic relationships, the reason she gives for this being that she thinks most of the men in her town are ‘dopes’. Her approach to the dating scene is cynical and matter-of-fact. When she signs up for a dating agency her only requirement is that she is matched with someone available to attend the wedding. Given her later attraction to Jess, we can assume that Mary’s lack of interest in relationships is linked to her uncertainty about her sexuality. Her mother’s disastrous love life likely has an influence on her pessimistic view of romance, with Mary clearly being embarrassed by her mother’s constant pursuit of much younger men.
One reason that Jess and Mary connect so quickly is that they are both outsiders in some way. From the moment she returns to Drogheda, Mary is an isolated figure, wandering around the town and drinking alone in her room. She may be maid-of-honour and involved the wedding preparations, but Mary is still made to feel like an outsider. During the hen party scene, we get the sense that Mary is merely a spectator in Charlene’s life. She stands alone, watching from afar as Charlene dances and poses for pictures with the other guests. Jess’ role as the photographer is fitting as her job is literally to observe. Like Mary, Jess is part of the wedding but outside of it. Jess and Mary are both deeply lonely people though they express it in very different ways. Shy, introverted Jess seems much more together, with a successful career as an in-demand photographer and local musician. Meanwhile, Mary’s frustration and sense of alienation cause her to lash out and engage in destructive behaviour. Jess’s position as the photographer also represents her ability to view things in a clear, somewhat detached way. She can recognise the unhealthy aspects of Charlene and Mary’s friendship and expresses her bewilderment over Mary’s quest to find a wedding date. She is very intuitive and is quick to guess Mary’s motivations. When Mary kisses her in front of a shocked Charlene and Leona and then asks her to be her date for the wedding, Jess quickly guesses that Mary is using their relationship to annoy Charlene.
Above all, Jess values honesty and shows an unwillingness to tolerate or ignore Mary’s bad behaviour. When Mary walks out on her after they have a fight, a disenchanted Jess leaves her a voicemail:
“I don’t really know what happened last night and, to be honest, I’m not sure I care anymore. I guess I don’t really know what’s going on with you, and you don’t seem to want to tell me. And running away like that is fucking ridiculous. That’s what children do, and I’m not a child.”
Mary’s immaturity, and unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions, also puts her into conflict with Charlene. It is important to note that, despite some of her more negative characteristics, the film never dismisses Charlene as an antagonist. She may be materialistic, controlling and obsessed with her own image but she is also a loyal friend. She stuck by Mary during her legal troubles and is genuinely concerned for her friend, although the way she expresses it is often ill-advised. As an audience, we should not overlook the difficult situation that Charlene is in. Mary arrives back in her life mere weeks before the wedding, during what is likely a highly stressful and emotional time for Charlene. She is already trying to balance the wedding preparations and the demands of her personal life, so understandably, she would struggle to find time to reconnect with her old friend.
Charlene’s treatment of Mary may be unfair at times, but Mary also often behaves in a way that is selfish and demanding. When Mary feels slighted or ignored by Charlene she lashes out. Much of the conflict in their relationship is fuelled by Mary’s inability to take responsibility for her actions. She glorifies their past friendship but is unable to see the effect that her behaviour has had on Charlene. She is unable to understand why Charlene won’t spend more time with her and repeatedly avoids going clubbing with her. Charlene is aware that Mary has a problem with alcohol and is clearly deeply disturbed by her behaviour. About midway through the film, we learn that Mary was in prison for drunkenly assaulting another young woman in a nightclub. Watching her best friend go to prison for committing such a vicious act was clearly a traumatic moment in Charlene’s life. Understandably, she is greatly frustrated by Mary’s unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions. When Mary turns up at her house the day before her wedding, asking her to go out drinking with her, Charlene finally snaps and confronts Mary:
“Do you have any idea the shit you put us through? Me, your Ma, all of us. After what you did. You haven’t got a clue, have you… And then you show up on my doorstep the day before my wedding and call me a shit friend because I won’t go drinking with you… You’re right I have changed. Everyone has except you, you’re still a mess. And who… wants to be around that.”
Although they reconcile before the wedding, Charlene and Mary’s final scene together is permeated by a sense of sadness. The wedding speech proves to be the final straw for Mary, as she is finally forced to view their friendship clearly and honestly. Although the final speech that Mary writes is not particularly articulate, it does properly convey the real truth and beauty of their friendship. Charlene is genuinely moved when Mary shows it to her before the wedding. However, Charlene decides last minute that it isn’t ‘appropriate’ and instead asks Leona to read the speech that she wrote herself. How Mary deals with this quiet rejection is one of the first real moments of maturity that she shows in the film. She does not appear angry, for the first time seeming willing to accept that their relationship will never be what it once was. Mary’s final scene with Charlene is touching and civil, with both women clearly deeply saddened by the realisation that they no longer fit into each other’s lives. Like Mary, there is part of Charlene that longs for the bond they shared in their youth. Although Charlene has gotten the life she wants, she clearly mourns the loss of a friendship that had been so important to her.
Her relationships with both Jess and Charlene greatly influence the change we see in Mary throughout the film. The Mary we see in the closing scenes is very different from the angry young woman we met at the start of the film. She has clearly matured, now able to view her relationships with a sense of clarity, and shows a willingness to acknowledge and make amends for her mistakes. This newfound maturity, and sensitivity to other people’s feelings, is shown when she leaves Jess a voicemail apologising for her behaviour:
“I know you don’t want me to call but I’m locked so… Actually, I’m not locked, I haven’t had a drink all day so I don’t know why I said that. I just wanted to say sorry for everything that happened. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I keep hurting people and I don’t know why. I think you were right about me and Charlene, you’re probably right about a lot of things.”
It is Mary’s personal growth that allows the film to end on an optimistic note. She now feels ready to open herself up to the possibility of a real, honest relationship with Jess. The final shot of the film shows Mary receiving an incoming call from Jess, hinting that they will reconcile. Ultimately, A Date for Mad Mary is about the importance of self-acceptance and taking responsibility for yourself and your behaviour. It is also about the impact that love can have on our lives and our perception of ourselves, whether it is the platonic love between friends or the romantic connection between two people.
*This article is partly based on research conducted for my MA thesis, The stunted development of young people in recent Irish film and television. University College Cork, 2017.
Credit for cover photo to Element Pictures.
Other photos to scannain.com, Element Pictures.
Additional Works Cited
Demme, Jonathan. Rachel Getting Married. Sony Pictures Classic, 2008.
Feig, Paul. Bridesmaids. Universal Pictures, 2011.