Michael Almereyda’s screen adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize nominated play Marjorie Prime never sheds its theatrical origins and fails to find new insights as a film.
The laziest critical complaint about screen adaptations of plays is that they look like “filmed theatre”, as if this were descriptive. But fans of recorded theatre know that there are vastly different approaches to this. The Globe Theatre recycles the same three setups: wide shots of the stage, medium shots of the main action, and the occasional closeup. When The Almeida Theatre broadcast Richard III last year, they sacrificed the wide shots — our best glimpse at the staging or blocking of the actors — to afford us the best view of the actors’ performances: it was all medium shots and closeups. Even beyond this, there are the hybrid productions, like Hamlet starring Maxine Peake, shot over two consecutive nights and edited together, or Gregory Doran’s Hamlet, in which the stage blocking was transported to a film set of similar dimensions.
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Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, a screen adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated play never quite sheds its origins as a play. Most of the action takes place in the living room of the eponymous Marjorie’s house, with few thoughtful attempts to open up the action. The dialogue has the clipped rhythm of the stage, in which characters speak in full sentences — even paragraphs. I started to cringe at Jon Hamm’s first scene, in which he leans into these rhythms. But this stiltedness proved deliberate, because his character is not quite real.The dialogue has the clipped rhythm of the stage, in which characters speak in full sentences.Click To Tweet
Hamm plays Walter Prime, a 3-D hologram AI of the eponymous Marjorie’s (Lois Smith) late husband when he was young. Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an aging matriarch who suffers from dementia. She lives with her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), and Tess’s husband, Jon (Tim Robbins) who have purchased her this “prime” to keep her mind occupied and lift her spirits. Jon and Tess fill Walter Prime with slightly augmented versions of the stories of his relationship with Marjorie. Watler dutifully repeats them to Marjorie, reminding her of who she was and who they were together.
As the story progresses, we start to cycle through more primes: a character dies offscreen and then is replaced by his or her prime in the following scene, without comment. You have to watch for the clues that these aren’t quite the same people. Marjorie Prime is too engaged, too interested in her daughter’s life. All the Primes have that stiff, controlled body language, especially at first. Because of the dual roles in the film, it’s an actors’ showcase, in which almost all of them get to eventually play two characters and make us question just how different they really are.
Almereyda first alerts us that there’s something off about Walter Prime by how he’s framed. In a head on medium shot, we can see the over-formality of Hamm’s body language: one leg crossed over the other, hands folded in his lap, still but for subtle facial expression. When we see him in closeup, it’s from the side at a high angle: that classic Hitchcock shot to indicate mistrust. If the stylized speech weren’t enough of a tip-off, this certainly helps.
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Most of the camerawork is much less purposeful. On film, the director controls where you’re looking at every moment, especially if only one character is in frame. Editing choices become crucial: are we focussing on the actor who is speaking or on their scene partner who is reacting? The scenes between a prime and a real person are where the poor editing choices become most apparent, because Almeredya likes to isolate them in alternating closeups. I never felt like I was getting new insight by focusing solely on one character in a given moment, especially because the whole idea behind the primes is that they aren’t very emotive: they react just enough to allow you to project onto them.
Almereyda transports most exposition scenes outside of the living room because where they happens matters less. But this actually draws attention to the fact these scenes are plot-driven rather than character-driven. In an attempt to add visual variety to these scenes, he tips into excessive camera movement. In an early handheld scene between Jon and Tess, who are arguing in the kitchen, the camera constantly roves distractingly back and forth. Worse, every departure from the living room indicates that a major event has occurred offstage — usually, someone has died, and the next time we see them will be in Prime form — something we would be figuring out from the performances alone, were it on stage.The story draws its power from conflating the real with the somewhat imagined. Click To Tweet
The story draws its power from conflating the real with the somewhat imagined. How well can we, or the characters, tell the difference between the primes and the real people? And do they prefer the primes? In so doing, playwright Jordan Harrison teases out how impossible it is to know someone and how we only get to know the version of someone we want to see. On film, the interactions between characters are all grounded in a specific time and place — in Marjorie’s living room. But on stage, the action can be seen as occurring in an arbitrary room, a stand-in for the location of any interaction we might have in life.
The result is that the film feels stuck on a surface reading. Each new prime we see rehashes the same questions, and the procession of them feels repetitive. Lois Smith originated Marjorie on stage, and the film does give more people access to her performance. But it feels like something less than the play — not an awkward facsimile of the original production like recorded theatre, but an overwrought, underbaked translation. Ultimately, Almereyda hasn’t found a way to bring the story out of the theatre and onto the screen.
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