VOD film review: Marjorie Prime
Matthew Turner | On 10, Nov 2017
Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Tim Robbins, Stephanie Andujar, Azumi Tsutsui, Hannah Gross
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Directed by Michael Almereyda (The Experimenter), this emotionally engaging sci-fi chamber piece is based on the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison. Lois Smith reprises her original stage role as Marjorie, an 86 year old widow who’s in the middle stages of dementia. Her daily companion is a holographic facsimile (or “Prime”) of her late husband, Walter (Jon Hamm), who’s been programmed to gently stimulate her memory by repeating stories from their past, such as how they met, or Walter choosing to propose after they had been on a date to see My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Marjorie shares her spacious Long Island beach house with her adult daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and her son-in-law, Jon (Tim Robbins), who has taken on the task of programming Walter Prime, despite his wife’s increasing misgivings that the hologram might be replacing her in her mother’s affections. Meanwhile, things get complicated when a tipsy Jon accidentally reveals details of a traumatic past family event to Walter, conflicting with the version of the story he has been told.
Almereyda has resisted the urge to open up the play in his adaptation, confining the action to a single location (give or take the occasional walk on the beach) and allowing the script’s complex ideas to take centre stage. To that end, the film presents a moving and fascinating exploration of memory, loss and story-telling, particularly the way in which we finesse memories to make the stories more palatable – one key scene involves Marjorie tweaking Walter’s proposal story to replace My Best Friend’s Wedding with Casablanca.
On a similar note, the characters openly discuss the film’s themes, allowing for several thought-provoking ideas, such as the theory that when the human brain recalls a memory, it is actually only recalling the last time the incident was remembered, rather than the incident itself, which is why memories can get fuzzier over time. It also has strong similarities to both Her and Robot & Frank, both films that explore the role of technology in human companionship.
The performances are exceptional. Smith perfectly captures the shifting phases of mid-stage dementia (anxiety, lucidity, confusion, a tendency to retreat to the past), in a way that’s sure to strike a strong chord for anyone with experience of the condition. Hamm is equally good as Walter, effectively playing him as a robot (measured intonation, perpetually calm demeanour), but investing the character with a touching empathy and an eagerness to learn, which translates as a desire to evolve and become more human (his programming, incidentally, is accomplished through conversation rather than computer coding).
In addition, it’s an absolute treat to see Geena Davis on screen again, particularly in such a strong role, while Robbins is superb as her well-meaning husband, who’s accustomed to treading carefully.
The latter half of the film makes some intriguing diversions from the play, including some bold decisions in regard to the time-frame, resulting in a rewarding final shot. Throughout, the atmosphere is heightened by a superb string-based score from Mica Levi – the icing on an already delicious cake.