by Freda Cooper
As our fascination with robots grows, Marjorie Prime presents a view of the near future where they’re more than care givers. They’re literally people substitutes, replacing loved ones. But, as Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s stage play shows, it’s far from a straightforward swop. They need deeply personal, intricate memories to share with their newly-acquired “family”.
Marjorie Prime; Dir.: Michael Almereyda; USA 2017, 99 mins; Our Rating ★★★/5
The opening moments of Marjorie Prime point towards a thriller. That jangling, Bernard Hermann-like music sounds sinister, the colour palette starts off as monochrome, then transforms into muted tones and a character appears from nowhere. But it’s the reddest of herrings. There’s no mystery, no suspense: instead a succession of conversations where some of the people aren’t quite what they seem.
They also give away the film’s origins. It was previously a stage play and it looks like one, a chamber piece which rarely moves away from one room in a lakeside house. There’s the occasional move into the fresh air but, despite the neutral colour scheme and the abundance of light, there’s an unwelcome feeling of claustrophobia. And the narrative boils down to a series of two-handers, starting with the elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith) and a dapper, middle aged man.
But Walter (Jon Hamm) is something else entirely: as his scenes with Marjorie’s son- in-law John (Tim Robbins) reveal, he’s a computer programme, a hologram even. He is her “Prime”, a re-creation of her late husband, based on how she most wants to remember him – in his mid-40s and at his most handsome. John provides Walter’s memories in private briefings, because she is in the early stages of dementia and her recollections are unreliable. She has “good days”, as she puts it, but that also means she has bad ones, when she can remember very little, when her arthritis is painful and when she suffers the indignity of wetting herself.
It’s a structure that repeats itself. Marjorie becomes a Prime herself, talking to her daughter Tess (Gina Davies) who uses the opportunity not just to fill the hologram’s memory, but to build bridges with her now dead mother, having conversations that should have taken place when she was alive. Before the next two-hander, John appears bewildered and dishevelled, looking like he’s suffering from the same condition as Marjorie. Another red herring. He acquires his own Prime and it’s Tess: he has to populate her memory in the same way as he did for Walter, but this time it’s too painful, too raw, and he feels like he’s talking to himself.
Refreshingly, Marjorie Prime doesn’t gloss over the realities of growing old. Like Bette Davis said, it’s “not for cissies”; the wrinkles, the dark age spots, the slow walk, the frequent need to sleep, they’re all there. And Marjorie’s declining years are made worse by her home being so isolated: there’s no sign of another house nearby, let alone any neighbours, and she doesn’t seem to go anywhere much, except the occasional trip to the beach. All she has for company are Tess, John, her carer Julie (Stephanie Andujar) and, of course, Walter Prime. It’s a comfortable, modern house but coldly functional and not a home in the true sense.
Almereyda, who also wrote the screenplay, takes a considered approach to the themes of loss, aging and, especially memory. He concentrates on the latter, with John and Tess discussing how it works: more “like a photocopy of a photocopy” so that memories change as time moves on. Ultimately, the Primes find that what they “remember” has shifted as well; they’ve learnt it all from humans.
Wordy, leisurely bordering on the slow and with a muted tone, there are times when Marjorie Prime feels like wading through concrete. But it’s worth hanging on in there, especially for Lois Smith’s outstanding performance as Marjorie, both the person and the Prime. Sadly, Jon Hamm isn’t up to the hardest role: unlike the others, we only see the original Walter in brief flashbacks and it’s not enough, making his Prime too rigid and postured, more reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’ Starman. Ultimately, the characters keep each other at arms’ length, and the film does the same to the audience. But it doesn’t stand in the way of giving them plenty to ponder.
Freda Cooper is a film critic and broadcaster. She tweets @FredaTalkingPix.