At the start of Mari, written and directed by Georgia Parris, we witness an extraordinary, kinetic dance sequence, the kind that reminds you of the sheer primal power of dance as an art form. Charlotte (Bobbi Jene Smith) is choreographing and leading a performance which she hopes will finally put her on the map and break her out of obscurity (as well as the expectations she has of herself). From what we see of her dance, she is ready to take off.
In this opening sequence Parris takes us on a tour de force of filmmaking and storytelling, alternating between electrifying flights of movement and moments of stillness, as Charlotte realises that she is pregnant. Immediately after this revelation she receives a phone call: her grandmother Mari is about to die. She must reunite with her family, whom we sense she is not all that close to, as they wait by comatose Mari’s bedside. From here on the film slows to a glacial pace, confined mainly to dimly lit interiors. From movement to stasis.
For a while this change of pace is very effective. Anyone that has been in this situation, waiting for the inevitable death of a loved one, knows that the world suddenly becomes a very different, barren place, where one is rendered mute by sorrow. Parris observes the tentative bringing-together of Charlotte’s family, all struggling with the situation and with each other. This family has not been happy for a while, we sense.
Parris uses Smith’s physical dexterity to foreground themes of embodiment and mortality, focusing on the tactile response Charlotte has to the experience, demonstrating great psychological insight for how our mind searches for the physical to make sense of the metaphysical. We find out that Mari was also an artist like Charlotte, which provides a sense of lineage, a passing on of vision, which whilst abstract in concept is rendered lucidly by Parris’ economical script. Charlotte’s estranged sister Lauren, who as we learn is experiencing her own private grief, is played with nuance by Madeline Worrall, while their mother Margot (Phoebe Nicholls) alternates between expansive magnanimity and insular anger.
Unfortunately, for all the depth and relatability on offer, the film’s slow pace does eventually begin to wear, as does its less-is-more approach to characterisation. Mari’s dialogue follows in the vein of realism that presupposes that in the real world people never say what they think until pushed to their limits and that silence is more realistic than communication.
The film relies on gesture and inference to such an extent that we begin to feel as if we’re being held at arm’s length, shown things we can understand but never brought fully into the characters’ worlds. As a result the film’s emotional climax, whilst resolutely well-observed, does not feel like a catharsis. We are left to wonder what has really happened to the hearts and souls of the characters we have been watching for the last hour and a half. Perhaps this ambiguity is the point, and there is plenty to admire in Mari, but it does not hit quite as hard as it could.
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