Wednesday 23 August 2017

Melbourne International Film Festival (4) - Peter Hourigan reviews MARJORIE PRIME (Michael Almereyda, USA)

John Hamm, Lois Smith, Marjorie Prime
Michael Almereyda’s Nadja garnered a lot of attention in 1994 for being partly shot using a Pixelvision toy camera. He had already made another feature film in 1992 Another Girl, Another Planet using a toy camera, in this case from Fisher-Price.  This was the start of a quite prolific career, but not one that has gained all the critical notice that I think Almereyda deserves.

In particular, there are two strong Shakespeare films, both with Ethan Hawke. In Hamlet (2000)¸the action takes place in corporate New York, among the glittery Denmark Corporation offices.  In 2014, he tackled the much less performed Cymbeline setting this Shakespearean tragedy of conflict in the world of dirty cops and outlaw bikie gangs.  Both work well, and he directs the original Shakespearean text in a way that is always satisfying.
More recently (2016) Experimenter dramatised the fascinating story of Yale researcher Stanley Milgram who devised the notorious psychological experiment in which people thought they were delivering painful, perhaps fatal, electric shocks to a stranger “because they’ve been told to”  This starred Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, and it’s mystery to me why it’s not better known.

His new film Marjorie Prime was shown at MIFF and I hope it meets a better fate in the marketplace.  Lois Smith is Marjorie, an old woman needing lots of attention from her family. We first meet her when she is starting her day, and her husband (Jon Hamm) is encouraging her to remember things, to take something to eat, to be positive. His body language is a bit strange – he sits artificially upright, hands permanently clasped on his knees, and his comments have a somewhat mechanical element. But he is supportive of Marjorie, who even if she gets exasperated at realising her condition from time to time, is heartened enough.

So, it’s a shock at the end of this long scene it seems – did we really see this? – she seems to walk through his feet as she crosses in front of him.

Yes, his presence is not corporeal. This plot idea is a lovely conceit, perhaps with some touches of Spike Jonze’s Her, but what is happening here is really a clever and fully satisfying invention. It provides a way of exploring the long life of Marjorie, her marriage, her family. In such films, it is the quality of the understanding of people and their relationships that is important, much more than just having a clever idea.

Geena Davis, Marjorie Prime
Slowly, we come to know Marjorie, her musical life and the impact of arthritis, an early family loss that is not much spoken about but deeply felt, the tensions with her own daughter now her major carer and more. Lois Smith’s performance is quiet, restrained and warm.
Geena Davis and Tim Robbins are her daughter and son-in-law and here also the relationships are looked at intelligently and with insight. The camerawork (Sean Price Williams) is also restrained, but exploring the major setting, a beautiful modern Los Angeles home, often just stationary allowing the drama to come from the dialogue and our observation of the people on screen.

Lois Smith, Marjorie Prime
Marjorie Prime comes from a play – author Jordan Harrison co-write the film script with Almereyda – and the almost continuous dialogue shows that. But it is never theatrical – and it is hard to imagine it being as effective in a theatre.  Lois Smith in fact created the role on stage, but when you catch clips from the stage production, you’re glad that you’re watching a film.

When the film finishes, you feel you can tentatively breathe out again. You’ve been allowed inside some beautiful but rather delicate people.

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