Mary and Max – Retrospective Review

Written & Directed by Adam Elliot

Australia/2009/92 Mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A two-fold coming-of-age narrative ‘Mary and Max’ (2009) charters the progression of Mary’s, a young, ‘chubby’ and socially anxious Australian into a woman, friendship with Max, a middle-aged Atheistic Jew in America. Pen pals, a support system, their friendship grows as Mary seeks an escape from her abusive, sherry-soaked mother Vera, all marvellous narrated by Australian treasure Barry Humphries. At random, fascinated by the states, Mary picks an address from a U.S phonebook and hopes to receive a reply to her letter. Gradually, as life moves on the pair grow distant, and after taking a degree in psychology, Mary uses her experiences with Max, who suffers from anxiety and lives in isolation due to his Asperger’s syndrome, as a case study for a book.

Written & directed by Adam Elliot, this stop-motion feature refuses to tread lightly on a plethora of usually difficult to digest themes. Not limiting itself to, but including anxiety, isolation, depression, obesity, addiction & substance abuse, friendship & ultimately forgiveness. In traditional Aussie style, these subjects are the basis of comedy, but not distastefully so, rather hyper-realism. They offset the grim, scathing commentary which scrapes the bones of truth, and leads us to smile while tears well our eyes. The blossoming friendship Max and Mary develop, and the falters they share as they hold grudges with one another, is entirely genuine, having been based on Elliot’s own experiences.

In a world which dictates itself in monochrome, a symphony of colour is located in the emotive spectrum Mary and Max covers. Colour is non-existent, with a simple crimson used to denote aspects of a character’s style, such as a hat or a coat. A profoundly ugly, callous, and cruel world surrounds itself in exquisite design, this is a masterpiece of animation. This method of stop-motion accentuates the illustrated depiction of anxiety, the shudders, and uncontrollable shakes. It bolsters the confusion Max feels to why he is rejected by society, owing to his disconnection from a misunderstanding towards autism. Neither tool overshadows the other, working in tandem to develop a story. The animation compliments the characters, and the accessibility of the writing ties the animation deeper into the audience’s mindset.

Unravelling the multitude of layers Elliot weaves throughout the narrative, ‘Mary and Max’ speaks to all, and years after the film’s initial release its premise, or at least an aspect of which, has become remarkably poignant. Isolation, interaction and correspondence, key topics as many of us sit separately from loved ones. In that no one is owed a reply, no one is owed communication and that the guilt-tripping of someone for living their life, by extension ‘ignoring’ yours, is not excusable, but is understandable. Explanations as to why Max refused to speak to Mary about his diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s specifically, and Mary’s crippling loneliness following a break-up, become examinations as to the dangers of co-dependency, but equally the reluctance to seek help.

Aspergers. It’s a subject many become fearful to engage, principally due to a lack of knowledge, an understandable concern given its disproportionate level of openness in the general public. Troublingly, it has become an almost ‘taboo’ subject, where people retract, rather than learn, out of worry of offending. ‘Mary & Max’ is unapologetic in its depictions of Max’s life with Asperger’s, and it should be applauded by simply making this a fact. It isn’t a ‘trait’, it isn’t a ‘quirk’, and Max considers this an aspect of who he is.

It’s a representation with honesty and tragically leads to Max’s eventual issues with mental health, social issues, and eventual collapse into depression. ‘Mary and Max’ isn’t easy viewing, it can be unpleasant, but the thing is that despite its animated nature, this is perhaps one of cinema’s most accessible, corporeal pieces into everyday mental health. Phillip Seymour Hoffman offers a great deal of Max’s characterisation, strengthening the caricature of Darren Bell’s sculptures. There’s an openness, an innocent, unfiltered honesty, to how Hoffman plays the role, which is accurate for a character living with Asperger’s, who doesn’t see fault with how he talks or interacts with people, despite their abuse and scolding.

Equally, Toni Collette and Bethany Whitmore (as young Mary) convey an innocence which evolves into a strong woman. Unsurprisingly, Collette carries tremendously mesmeric humour in the film, only being outdone by Renée Geyer as the detestably wonderful Vera. It’s a necessary levity in an otherwise dramatic film, particularly in its ingenuousness concerns of suicide. The depictions of bodily harm aren’t comedic or treated with disdain, they are addressed and handled with dignity, an astonishing feat given Eliot’s lyrical humour throughout the film. Then the finale, a shattering moment of life’s obscurity and the true testament of valuing our relationships to anyone and everyone. That there isn’t a weakness in addressing and accepting our battles with mental health, but strength in recognising when we need help, and in Max’s case, an unfortunate escape. No judgements are present, merely a solemn moment of tenderness captured.

A remarkably simplistic story, of two unlikely friends – continents apart, tells us in a barbarically brutal, but extraordinarily raw and touching manner, that even as the black dogs howl at the doors, there is someone who will listen. ‘Mary and Max’ treads headfirst into the harrowing cluster of various mental health topics, reminding us that in the seeming futility of life that there is hope, there is help and there are options – whether this is our favourite chocolates, a television show, medication, therapy, or a potent memory of someone we cherish. It reminds the downtrodden that deep down, just over the precipice of oblivion, that there is a light which doesn’t go out. All woven into a gorgeously crafted, sentimentally comedic Aussie delight.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/05/30/mental-health-awarenss-month-retrospective-review-mary-and-max/

Scenes For Survival Launch – National Theatre Scotland

At this moment, Theatre is fighting tooth & nail for our right to express a freedom of creativity, and engage an appreciation of what we, as a community, can produce. What finer way to demonstrate the capabilities of exceptionally talented individuals coming together, than with a composite of forty-plus digital artworks produced in isolation. Isolated adaptations of previous works, new creations from aspiring creators and national treasures, speaking to all generations, cultures and yet harkening back to that individualistic ability to take you, however briefly, out of this world and into another.

Following the release of this short film collection, The National Theatre Scotland will begin broadcasting another segment of Scenes for Survival every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 pm, starting with a brief extract from Frances Poet’s Fibres, titled A Mug’s Game.

If you had been lucky enough to catch Poet’s production during its recent tour, you’ll be familiar with the blood-roaring fury etched into its script, a revulsion communicated in a way only morose Scottish humour can capture. Returning to perform an extract is one of the country’s most beloved performers, Jonathan Watson, who stars as a Clyde shipbuilder, who like many lives with the effects of Asbestos exposure, and the absence of acknowledgement or care from those who created these dangerous environments.

Watson is the voice of a generation of men. A humble man, his rage isn’t blazing, but subdued in a quiet reserve of warped gratitude for work, tying into the dying relevance of Glasgow’s dockyards, and value of the Scottish working class. Dauntingly accurate, stepping beyond the ideas of masks and safety, the drive for bosses, gaffers, and board members to march their ‘human capital’ into dangerous environments is, frankly, disturbingly relevant. Seth Hardwick’s editing, including the splicing of stock dockworkers shift-work, offers a weight to tie back into the rusted veins of Scotland’s labour intense history.

The harsh reality is that with every choice, every breath we take right now, we have no idea of the potential consequences. Fagan’s writing is the catalyst for Kate Dickie’s intense performance, honing itself not solely around the biological impacts of COVID-19, but the debilitating aura is exudes – the crippling solitude, reinforcing a growing concern of the fragility of mental health, on top of our obvious concerns of physical well-being. Wonderfully imaginative, Fagan’s writing enables Dickie to convey an ethereal, almost detached view of the world and its recovery in our absence. Dickie transcends her prison and establishes an understanding with the audience’s frustrations, concerns and questions to the future.

Isolation’s sound design neatly ties deeper into Fagan’s descriptive troubles of mental deterioration, the almost hallucinogenic properties where isolation forces us to confront ourselves, in the absence of being able to see this alien entity, this virus, our minds tie even the clatters of Thursday night Claps for Carers into a malevolence. Within the intermediary transitions, the sound score leans heavily on the dramatic foreboding, attempting to add more to an already clear intent.

For some, the time in lockdown has enabled us to have a clearing of sorts, enabling them to remove the gunk from their minds, freeing space for other thoughts to fester. Morna Pearson’s Clearing toes as a comedy, tearing itself between the uncomfortable reality of death/disease and discomfort children face going between two homes.

Ashleigh More provides a wide range of facial emotions, remarkably animated and energetic, something missing from the other performances which focus on the wearying effect of lockdown. The brilliance of Clearing is Pearson’s toying with layers of narrative, and a revelation which subverts the built-up sentiment remarkably so. Short, effective, and worth it for the levels of Pearson’s writing.

You might be expecting some humour from Godley, and you’d be correct. Alone is so much more though, it’s an authentic experience of a woman’s life. You see Jim, Jim likes his rules. Fastidious, controlling, but carried with an air of buffoonery, Godley illustrates a familiar situation, perhaps one we recognise in our parents. The underlying commentary, however, the subversion of the obvious, while jabbing at the ignorant attitudes some share regarding which rules they will and will not follow, leads to a short which feels undoubtedly the most ‘Scottish’.

Grim, earthy, with a twang and wink of charm, Godley lets down her hair in this lockdown short which will speak to many women sitting at home, experiencing the same routines and Jim’s of their own. With some exceptionally tight writing, with an unashamedly gorgeous appearance from Honey, this is a must-see for those newfound Twitter fans of Godley’s to experience the brilliance of her creative capabilities.

It’s a tough year so far, right? You’d be forgiven if you lapsed into the nostalgic times – hell, you’d be forgiven if you just wanted to relive last Christmas. Stef Smith’s The Present has a definite flow and the plainest story evolution of this evenings shorts.

Moyo Akande brings everything to Smith’s lyrical structure, which in the hands of another could have robbed The Present of its gradual evolution into sentimentality. The pacing of this short is paramount, too soon and the character feels hollow, too late and there’s no connection. Akande’s performance has a progressive build, Katherine Nesbitt’s direction knowing how to utilise the production’s strengths, allowing for Smith’s words to feel entirely natural, unrehearsed and shifts into an accessible language which retains its intention.

Well Scotland, we’ve been waiting for this one. He’s back, not for a case, not even for the pub(s). No, this time Rebus is finally leaving his stubbornness at the door, to an extent, and isolating. Refusing to modernise, choosing to seek comfort in his vinyl’s, a paper and a few cans, Rebus returns to the realisation of how important the one point of contact he has with longsuffering, friend, and colleague Siobhan. Like welcoming an old friend into the home, Rebus reflects on his life as he faces his own ‘sentence’.

An unstoppable trio of engaging writing, performance and led with Cora Bissett’s exceptional direction sees the nation’s curmudgeon return for a special which retains all of the Rebus humour, call-backs and characters, but Rankin’s original story also proffers a connection with a generation who connects with these stories like no other. This is a role which fans have been casting Brian Cox in for decades, and this feels right. From the first line, this just feels right.

Despite its roots in storytelling, Scotland looks forward, these weavers of narrative use their craft to utilise our reflection not to think of the ‘normality’ we will return to, but what the next step is. Not how quickly people will fall back into their routines post-lockdown, but how we come together to learn, to celebrate the magnificence of Scottish artists, and seek solace in hope. A prevalent concept in the peripherals of many creators is to the world we shall emerge into. A theme throughout Scenes for Survival, for good reason. That in this grand scheme, this infinitesimal amount of time demonstrates how the incompetence, arrogance and crimson soaked talons of the elite have pried open the eyes of the future, revealing that in truth – we can never go back to the way things were.

Theatre will return. Tyrants fall, but stories rule forever. And art will outlive commerce, but the way forward is unclear, and these Scenes of Survival will charter a dawning era for Scotland, for expression and community.

The entire launch collection can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hybVBdI2SXI

Further information, donations and other projects can be sourced from The National Theatre Scotland’s website: https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/

Raise The Curtain – Capital Theatre’s Digital Engagement

The curtain will rise again. But until then, we invite you to Discover it. Create it. Perform it

From the heart of one of the nation’s Theatrical epicentres, Capital Theatre, managing charity for Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, King’s Theatre and The Studio announces Raise the Curtain, a wide-range of events and digital activities to engage with the audiences while theatres are closed. So, whether you’re a young connoisseur of the arts finishing a nap, or keen to engage in some intergenerational ballroom dancing before a nap, Raise the Curtain will allow a range of live virtual performances, and interactive engagement sessions straight to your home.

Below you will find details regarding the outlines for many of the activities which are open to the public, as well as private projects developed for specific community groups.

Finding it tough to keep the Wee Creatives entertained? Or perhaps you’re looking for an excuse to crack out the art supplies and play-dress up? Well, no excuse is required for Wee Creatives which will offer free creative sessions for young children and their adults to enjoy. These weekly sessions shift from The Studio Theatre and directly into your home, with each week being led by a different performance artist who will lead a child friendly session. Presented live from Zoom and located on YouTube, these sessions begin as of today (May 28th)

And starting in July, over the period of eight weeks you’ll have the ability to learn to dance from the comfort of your own home, through a series of live and pre-recorded sessions courtesy of Shall We Dance? Hosted by former Scottish, International and World Champion dancer, Dawn Irvine. Dawn will bravely lead these bimonthly sessions in a for you to learn how to perform your own ballroom classics such as the Foxtrot, Jive, Waltz or the infamous Cha Cha Cha. Between sessions you’ll also gain access to these pre-recoded videos to ensure those two left feet don’t act up between lessons. All leading up to a grand spectacle, as Capital Theatres will host an afternoon, live on Zoom, for everyone to join in and strut their stuff, including a show dance from Andrei Toader and Mia Linnik-Holden.

We’ve spoken on Corr Blimey before about the marvellously popular Tea and Jam sessions held by Capital. A part of their dementia inclusive programme, this family friendly event is a monthly Zoom must, whether you’re cracking out the old guitars or warming up those vocals, all ages are welcome. This 45-minute session of uplifting melody is led by professional musician Gus Harrower and will held the last Friday of each month from 11am until noon.

QOTA was the highlight of the two-year partnership with LGBT Youth Scotland, a co-created original piece made with a group of young trans-activists across Scotland. Performing in front of 300 MSPs and invited guests at the Scottish Parliament in February, Capital have moved their activities with the group to a digital creative platform, where there is a continued supported to engage with the performing arts during lockdown.

Ever thought about what it’s like high up the lighting rig, or behind the box office? Well, with Behind the Scenes the public are invited to join an interactive call with staff at Capital Theatres to share the secrets of the theatre and how the tricks and magic come together. Having started last night (May 27th) this is sure to be of tremendous interest to those theatrical fans and budding performers.

Still not learned enough about the way Capital works? Well, with their Virtual Backstage Tours you can get your fix of all the secrets and mysteries lurking beneath The King’s Theatre, or some of the historical accomplishments the Festival Theatre (once Empire) has achieved. Starting June 2020, if you’ve been lucky enough to attend these tours in person, you’ll know how fascinating these sessions can be.

As part of their long-standing partnership with Harmeny Education Trust (a residential care home for care experienced children, in South West Edinburgh) Harmeny has been adapted to become a co-created storytelling project during lockdown. Gradually building the world and narrative around them, children create the story, choose the characters and environment and steadily, each week share, through various creative means, how they would like the story to advance. This in turn is then transformed into an artistic response through video the following week. By the conclusion of the six-week programme three short films of the children’s stories will be made available to enjoy and share.

FUSE is a project for anyone who is care experienced. For the last two months, participants over the age of sixteen have been digitally meeting weekly to discuss challenges presented, or heightened, by lockdown such as isolation, anxiety, and loneliness. Broadening their experiences, their weekly theatre club Zoom involves participants watching theatre online, bringing the group together to discover new performing arts and sharing the experiences.

Finally, Joy to the Moment looks to provide entertainment for residents isolating in care homes, or those shielding in their own. A series of small performances, wonderfully inspired from Gracie Irvine, a young pupil at The Edinburgh Steiner School, whose concerns for people isolating and in care surroundings, wanting to find a way to provide comfort and entertainment, starting June 1st.

We may, presently, be unable to soak in the rich atmosphere of the theatre, but it will return. And until that day, we can maintain a cultural adoration and encourage a continued and right to engage with and develop art.

Full information regarding specific events can be sourced directly from Capital Theatres, either from their social media channels or website: http://www.capitaltheatres.com

Photo Credit – Phil Wilkinson info@philwilkinson.net http://www.philwilkinson.net 01316186373