Marjorie Prime film review Sundance London 2017: ghosts of memories

Memories of deceased loved ones are brought to life in Marjorie Prime, but can they be trusted?

“I can help you if you let me. I’d like to help you. But first you have to tell me about myself.”

Memory is the central theme of Marjorie Prime, a claustrophobic chamber drama with a neat sci-fi hook. In its sleek near-future world, a service creating fully sentient holographic projections of late family members allows people to spend time with a version of a deceased loved one, even a younger incarnation of the departed if that’s what they want.

The artificial intelligence becomes more and more like the loved one based on the memories people share with them, whether they’re accurate representations of the past or a more palatable version that the user would prefer to remember.

As the film opens, the dementia-ridded Marjorie (Lois Smith) talks with a younger version of her late husband, Walter (Jon Hamm). Their chats are steeped in nostalgia, the empathetic AI acting as a channel to a past Marjorie is losing track of, and keeping her mind active. Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Geena Davis), has qualms about her mother’s bond with the AI; her husband, Jon (Tim Robbins), a little less so.

Though written for the screen by director Michael Almereyda (who has genre oddities like Nadja on his CV), Marjorie Prime is based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Jordan Harrison. There’s an element of staginess to how it unfolds, and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography favours static compositions that honour the play’s format. That said, the film never comes across as lacking in cinematic qualities, helped in part by use of flashbacks that later add up to a powerful montage in the finale.

To elaborate on the film’s compelling structure without getting into spoilers, Tess is later faced with a similar hologram of Marjorie, and then another character with one of someone else. As such, the four excellent leads get dual complimentary performances to play, each informed by the viewer’s own recollection and perception of the film’s earlier chats, with subtle cues adding up to quietly devastating payoffs.

Marjorie Prime was seen and reviewed at Sundance London 2017. See it on Sunday 4 June and find tickets here.