The opening of Mari (2018) features a serene, poetic dance, people moving about to their internal rhythms and exploring their own bodies through the medium. The choreographer, Charlotte (Bobbi Jene Smith), is in her element, her happy demeanour obvious as she guides the other dancers through the motions that will make up her latest piece. But minutes later she discovers something that puts her whole future into question – a revelation that makes her following dance practise suddenly chaotic, her balance thrown and rhythm out-of-sync. This beautiful sequence is one of many in Georgia Parris’ film that combines dance and story to entrancing effect, Parris giving equal weight to both while allowing the emotions to flow between them.
Charlotte’s life is thrown into further disarray when she finds out her grandmother, Mari (Paddy Glynn), has been admitted to hospital, her health in such a quick decline that her family are preparing for the worst. Travelling back home to help in any way she can, Charlotte and her family constantly switch between the cold, grey hospital room that holds her unconscious grandmother, to the cosy interior of Mari’s cottage home, each of them waiting for hopeful news – something that seems less likely as the days go by. Trying to offer what little comfort they can to Mari at her bedside, Parris starkly captures the family’s frustration as time drags ever onwards, attempting to keep themselves occupied while the back and forth between two places makes them steadily more exasperated. This constant cycle also means relationships soon become frayed, old issues between the family members suddenly resurfacing in raw, unexpected ways, particularly between Charlotte and her distant sister (Madeleine Worrall), who seems less than pleased to have Charlotte back home. As tensions rise and emotions become increasingly fraught, Parris expertly unravels her story, deftly exploring each of these relationships and the themes of her narrative, her subtle direction pulling us in at every moment.
However, it is Charlotte’s relationship to Mari that Parris depicts in such a beautiful and memorable way, Charlotte often reminiscing about times spent with her grandmother and how profoundly she has affected her life. Although Mari is rarely seen in the film, she is felt within every frame, whether in the objects found throughout her home (such as a secret pack of cigarettes Charlotte finds in the bathroom), or in the constant reminder the family have of her declining illness. During one later scene, Charlotte almost seems to transform into her grandmother, sitting in Mari’s empty armchair and flailing her limbs around in a half-dance – as if taking on the pain Mari must be feeling. It is just one example that Parris uses to portray how palpable their connection is – something that again adds an air of sadness throughout as the family begin to prepare for the inevitable. Yet within this poignancy there is also something joyful that emerges, Parris hinting at how much of an influence Mari has been to Charlotte’s life and work, and how she is still inspiring her. While listening to an old cassette tape featuring an interview with her grandmother, it is revealed that Mari is an artist who has reasonable success, her talk of painting and the process of creation mesmerising the happy Charlotte. When we suddenly hear the voice of the younger Charlotte appear on the tape during the same interview, we realise how much this moment had an effect on her, possibly even shaping her own career path.
It is magnificent little scenes like this that add to the overall potency of the film, each of the family members affected in their own ways by their vivid memories of Mari, their emotions often threatening to break through their calm exteriors. In order to keep some sort of illusion of routine amongst all the chaos and uncertainty, the family often turn to cooking, cleaning, reading, sewing; anything that could keep their minds off the inevitable. In one brilliant scene, Charlotte even gets her Mum (Phoebe Nicholls) and sister to warm up their bodies with exercises she uses in her classes, each of the women enjoying a brief moment of peace and distraction. These quiet observations are expertly conveyed by Parris, the writer-director keen to let them play out onscreen, the realism tangible and effective. The beautifully nuanced performances from the cast, specifically Bobbi Jene Smith, Phoebe Nicholls and Madeleine Worrall, heighten this feeling, sometimes making it seem as if Parris has captured the life of a real family on camera. Nicholls in particular is phenomenal in the more poignant moments, her slow realisation of what’s around the corner for her mother heart-breaking to see.
With such a wonderfully touching story, the dance numbers that Parris includes throughout could have been in danger of disrupting the plot, or even taking away from the authenticity felt throughout. However Parris is able to seamlessly weave each of the dance numbers into her tale, using them as a way to reinforce the narrative itself. We often see how Charlotte uses dance to work through the issues of her body and mind, throwing herself into the moment and almost seeming hypnotised as she elegantly moves across the frame. Yet it is the film’s most powerful scene that shows how adept Parris is at combining the two, an extended dance sequence suddenly manifesting onscreen in an invasion of colours and dream-like motions. Maxine Doyle’s choreography here is sublime, her movements able to convey all of Charlotte’s thoughts and feelings, the dance transforming into a montage of her fears and hopes for the future. It’s an astonishing moment that captures the bigger themes at play, while it also offers an answer to Charlotte’s dilemma that Parris wisely leaves up to our own interpretation.
There is a familiarity to Mari which is often overwhelming, the situation depicted one that many of us will recognise. Indeed, Parris wrote the script in memory of her own grandmother (also called Mari). That personal touch gives Parris’ film a palpable realism – one she has deftly captured onscreen in order to deliver a truly tender and enchanting film. The world of dance is entwined in the narrative in such a way that it heightens the story, Bobbi Jene Smith a stunning lead able to bring those choreographed scenes to life with all their emotional resonance intact. Yet it is the quiet moments between the family that are often the most moving, the relationships between each of them naturally portrayed and beautifully observed.