In Praise of Emily Mortimer, and why MARY is a “Humpback Movie.”

Emily Mortimer is an actress of prodigious talent.  Everyone recognizes her but I guess some may still not know her name, as she is not “box-office” and sometimes stars in films that show up on Netflix or in Redbox without theatrical release with portentous regularity.  But she rocks.   I cannot deny that I found her, well, really appealing the first couple of times I set eyes on her, in a bit in NOTTING HILL and then as one of the four cuties (including Alicia Silverstone) the royal lads are pursuing in Kenneth Branagh’s LOVE’S LABOUR LOST.  LOST was considered quite the misfire at the time, though I find it a perfect example of “humpback cinema,” where there are many qualities to a work that is also indisputably kind of messed up overall.

Ms. Mortimer as one of the cuties in Kenneth Branagh’s humpback LOVE’S LABOUR LOST

A prime example of humpback cinema would be Burt Kennedy’s 1972 western HANNIE CAULDER, which alternates between richly textured scenes of a pensive Robert Culp teaching Raquel Welch how to kill so she can avenge her rape and ridiculous scenes of Ernest Borgnine and others playing her rapists as if they were the Three Stooges.  But one of the qualities of Branagh’s Lost was Mortimer, who I found adorable.

And while that’s typical male gaze nonsense, I guess, I meant well, and I have good taste, as she can act and then some, whether comedic as one of Alec Baldwin’s many hilarious girlfriends in 30 ROCK, dramatic  in David Mamet’s REDBELT, and all sorts of stuff through the years, including Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT (I would have chosen Mortimer over that snake Scarlett Johansson any day!)  and MARY POPPINS RETURNS.  I go into such rich detail about my movie-crush because she’s never quite gotten her due, always giving terrific, nuanced performances in works not always worthy of her talents.  Her talent is what brings the moody seafaring ghost story MARY into humpback territory, which may not be a surprise, except it might be a surprise, as her name isn’t even on the poster of the damn movie, which highlights only Gary Oldman’s yeoman efforts.

Where is Emily’s name???

Oldman, an indisputably fine actor, does honorable work in MARY, doing the classic “underplay-in-the-low-budget-thing” famous actors do when they don’t want to be embarrassed. No such option for Mortimer, who carries the film (it’s really her story all the way) and acts up a storm, creating nuanced, believable reactions to all the mayhem unfolding around her and being as magnetic a presence as any movie star despite not being a “name brand” like Oldman (she walks away with every scene shared with him, not an easy task).  Plus she looks great dressed ready for the sea in shorts and halter tops.  I am nothing if not loyal to my movie crushes.

The movie itself is sleekly lensed by television vet Michael Goi, with some luscious images of the open water (alongside lots of pitch-black night-lensing which points to a low budget), and scripted by Anthony Janswinski, with one rather glaring blotch; it utilizes a flashback structure that allows Mortimer more onscreen acting time (yay!) but dissipates nearly all tension as we have a fair idea who makes it to the climax and who doesn’t (nay!).

The film, which involves a struggling captain buying a mysteriously abandoned boat to start his own charter business, and taking a maiden voyage with his family and a few tagalongs through the Bermuda Triangle (oops), does a reasonable job of creating a foreboding atmosphere as strange happenings unfold, and without the flashback structure I think I would have been thoroughly involved.  With it, I know, say, tagalong #1 isn’t going to make it to shore, alleviating a great deal of tension.  But Mortimer is terrific, nonetheless, as she explains on land what happened to a suspicious FBI agent played by Jennifer Esposito, who looks good in FBI formal wear though she doesn’t have much to do besides nod pensively.

It’s not easy being trapped on a sailboat with a ghost.

Also, right when MARY seems like it might get really good, it kinda just stops, whether because of a lack of creativity or money, who can say (the film is barely 82 minutes long not including its drawn-out ending credits).  But like I said, it’s a pretty good “humpback” movie, its flaws largely mitigated by Oldman’s good performance and Mortimer’s superior, committed one as the parents, and Stefanie Scott and Chloe Perrin’s sympathetic performances as their children (who after taking up a large portion of the early parts of the film largely disappear for the final act).

Stefanie Scott and little Chloe Perrin ably support Mortimer, Oldman and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo in MARY.

Any fan of Mortimer or Oldman’s shouldn’t avoid it, as while it’s not Mamet it’s no disgrace, and in Mortimer’s case, she creates a memorable and vivid portrait of a troubled and terrified mom. This sympathetic, lived-in family unit (credit to the actors and somewhat to the script) deserves a lot better than Mary the Boat and somewhat better than MARY the screenplay, but MARY ultimately delivers some chills without capsizing completely.

Originally published 2019, for Whatchareading

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