08th Oct2015

LFF 2015: ‘When Marnie Was There’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima | Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Hiromasa Yonebayashi | Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

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Many a tear will be shed in the presence of Studio Ghibli’s latest – and possibly last – feature film. The company holds such emotional sway over its audiences unrivalled by any other animation studio (except for, say, Pixar) that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the sniffy moments in When Marnie Was There are solely caused by the film itself or the memory of Ghibli films gone by.

The opening inclines you to assume the film’s marching to its own beat: we meet schoolgirl Anna, a talented sketch artist, struggling with a profound unhappiness directed at herself, which is an uncommon beginning for a children’s story. She can’t connect to other children and spends much of her time drawing scenes with the people left out, so her foster mother sends Anna to her aunt and uncle’s house by the sea so that she can recover and “come back happy”. Unsurprisingly she experiences the same difficulties at the beach as in the city, fleeing from social interactions, but when she sees a dream-mansion only accessible during low tide, Anna feels drawn to the place and the beautiful, energetic Marnie who may or may not be a figment of her imagination.

What follows is a study of the kind of intense friendships that only teenage girls seem capable of having (My So-Called Life comes to mind more than once) and a ‘grass is always greener’ exploration of childhood trauma and longing. As you might infer from the subject matter, the animation is somewhat subdued compared to much of the rest of Ghibli’s oeuvre, trading in flying castles, shape-shifting wizards and talking animals for vast landscapes and dramatic rainstorms. When Marnie Was There is no less beautiful for this shift in tone, mind, and the static setting allows us to appreciate the small transformations that places undergo, often with little fanfare.

If the landscape alters slightly, Anna undergoes a much more significant change, eventually expanding her circle of friends and learning to accept love from those around her. While relatable to anyone who’s ever felt like a loner, it doesn’t ring quite true when you consider Anna’s self-loathing and apathy towards the world in the film’s opening scenes. The fact that her mental health is completely repaired by a summer by the sea suggests that such conditions are temporary and curable, which could be seen to marginalise depression.

These implicit problems become all too explicit when plot threads are wrapped up in the neatest possible way, imbuing the film with a sentimentality that, while certainly reminiscent of great Ghibli movies, robs When Marnie Was There of the melancholic pathos that those films achieved. However, in lacking what their greatest movies possessed we’re reminded of the studio’s back catalogue, so perhaps this is a fitting swansong after all.

When Marnie Was There is showing at the BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 7 – 18 October. Click here for tickets and more information.

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