MARJORIE PRIME took me by surprise. It’s a very well-acted, thoughtful chamber piece and dialed-back sci-fi has had great form over the last few years, but I wasn’t quite expecting the emotional content to hit me like a train. It’s cerebral, but it’s also full to the brim with soul.
Marjorie (Lois Smith) is 86 years-old and suffering from dementia. She spends many of her waking hours interacting with a “Prime”, a hologram of her dead husband Walter (Jon Hamm) that her family have brought in to remind her of her key life events and daily routines. As the decades pass by, more Primes join the family and help them keep the memory of loved ones alive.
It’s an agonising process many families go through, but the process of having a family member steadily lose their memory is the basis of a pretty dark exchange between Marjorie and Walter at the beginning of the film: “I could tell you a story – you liked that last time” / “I’ll have to take your word for it”. He tells her the story of his proposal and in one of her more lucid moments she suggests that next time he might improve it by lying. Who’s to say he hasn’t done this before? Who’s to say he was wrong to do so if he did?
It’s a creepy but all-too-plausible idea, that of giving a dementia sufferer an intelligent hologram as a companion, confidant and career when their own family are unable to give their own time. There are already robots to help the elderly, are we that far away from abandoning the physical altogether? The idea that this would also allow the new generation to meet a family member who passed before their time also hits home.
As warped as the relationship is, it’s nice to see an older female lead in a relationship with (a representation of) a younger man, and Smith and Hamm make for a sweet, genuine pairing. I completely buy Geena Davis as Smith’s daughter: it’s something in the smile and something else in her disdain for most people. She’s as charming and real as you could wish for and I love the idea she grows to resent Walter Prime’s relationship with her mother despite their far-from-harmonious relationship and presumably agreeing to it in the first place for her own peace of mind.
Marjorie Prime is about not letting go, the need to preserve memories of the good times. As Marjorie clings on to what little she can recall with the help of a representation of her husband at his best, later everyone makes use of a Prime to remember and understand somebody after they’ve gone.
I was not the least bit surprised to learn this is based on a play, a play starring Lois Smith at that. The intimate setting and subject matter and the close study of a small cast of characters has translated from the stage, the performances doubtless dialled back a bit for the closeups. The final image of the three primes together, pooling and comparing their memories in an effort to feel something about…anything, is a lasting, haunting one. The cast playing the primes give such modulated, careful performances it’s amazing that they can provoke such a reaction. They’re a bit off, a bit uncanny, but so keen to be as real as possible to the people they keep company. Marjorie Prime is complex in its ideas and characterisation but incredibly simple in its direct connection to the heart. In short, it’s something special. SSP