Reviewing When Marnie Was There

I’ve been meaning to post this for quite a while, actually, but I’ve never been in the right frame of mind for it. Now? Yeah, it’ll do. Doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get to the end of this without some emotional response though…

So, a while back, I posted a list of my favourite animated movies, and whilst for the most part that list does still hold up, I have to say, if I had seen this movie back then, it would have definitely been on there. Not quite sure where, but definitely near the top. Studio Ghibli has long been associated with quality animated movies, and even with the very real possibility that this is their final gift, what a gift to leave on!

Based actually on an English novel by Joan G. Robinson, this film tells the story of a young girl named Anna, who’s artistic, highly introverted, suffers from asthma and lives with a foster family who worry about connecting with her, and her connecting with other people. Truth be told, Anna suffers from a degree of self-loathing. But when a doctor suggests to her foster mother that she get away from the bustle of a city life, she agrees, and sends Anna to live with her sister and brother-in-law in a seaside town near Sapporo for the summer. Although initially about as disconnected as before, including upsetting some of the locals, Anna discovers an apparently abandoned mansion across a marsh, but occasionally sees lights on there too. One night, she discovers a girl her age living there, a girl named Marnie, who’s full of unbridled openness and friendliness towards Anna, and the two of them pick up a very dependable and close friendship, which is very open to interpretation in the way they act, particularly at how Marnie jovially declares Anna to be her ‘precious secret.’ It eventually becomes clear however, that Marnie is incredibly elusive. Occasionally, Anna will find the mansion completely derelict, despite being very full of life when Marnie’s there. It’s obvious that there’s more to Marnie than meets the eye, but given the insight Anna’s had to Marnie’s life in that mansion, one rather isolated and full of neglect, leads to her resolving to help Marnie however she can, no matter who she is, where she came from, or even if she’s even real…

Perhaps what makes this movie stand out to me more than the other Ghibli ones I’ve seen is how this has much more of a story to it than something like Kiki or Spirited Away, which may have something to do with it being a novel first. Kiki is just a slice of life movie, and whilst Spirited Away had a goal accomplished at the end of it, it’s still mostly focused on Chihiro’s interactions in a strange environment. Both these things work fantastically for the movies, but as someone very interested in narrative, this just caught my attention more. I felt like there wasn’t a single thing I could miss about it. Marnie’s introduction gave me all kinds of questions, and continued to intrigue me as the movie played out. Having to know an ending is a true sign of an engaging film. The characters are also fantastic, both the supporting and the main – perhaps Anna’s just all the more relatable to me, particularly how she talks about an ‘invisible magic circle’ in the world, representing social interactions, and how she is on the outside. The emotions Anna runs through throughout the flick is actually reminiscent to what I often go through. See, I told you it would be emotional for me to go through this…but anyway…

The way these two characters work off each other is incredible. There’s a scene where they have a long conversation about their feelings which doesn’t feel heavy-handed or forced or in any way boring…I mean, I love characters talking about their feelings, but this does it all the better with scene transitions relating to what they’re saying, and as it’s Studio Ghibli, you know the backgrounds are just going to be gorgeous-looking. This film is, and it knows it. Just the shots of the marsh, the town, the water, they’re all so beautifully drawn, and despite being hand-drawn, just look and feel so real. It translates well into the pacing of the movie too, as even though the story is plot-driven, they sometimes just allow you to experience the atmosphere of the place, and it really works. The eponymous Marnie isn’t actually introduced until about half an hour in, allowing for you to feel as Anna does, just the way this little town works. There’s a scene with Anna walking home at sunset, and she passes a cyclist as she turns a corner. Why was this detail included? I don’t know, remove it and the story would still be complete, but it’s just such a nice detail. I can’t explain it. It’s just wonderful.

For all my gushing about this movie, you might wonder if it has any flaws. Well, yes, I’d say it did – but it’s difficult to talk about them without going into spoiler territory. I will do my best though.

By the end of the film, you are given an answer as to Marnie’s identity. It certainly fits, although on reflection, the explanation does raise a few questions which might distract a keen viewer, particularly about the nature of Anna and Marnie’s relationship as shown, and the possibilities of Anna’s role in all of this. Again, difficult to word without giving anything a way, but I imagine it could give some audiences a less than resolved feeling by the end. It did in my case when I first watched, but upon re-watching it recently, most of that vanished, because in all honesty, the vagueness presented to you didn’t change the strength of the relationship that we had seen develop throughout the story, nor the strength of Anna’s character development. It does end on a distinctly positive note, so it’s not as if these characters we’ve grown to care about are robbed of a happy ending. It’s just perhaps not as robust to analyst as some others might be. Sure, it raises a few questions, but it solves the major ones and does wonders for your emotions as you do so. Ultimately, these flaws are minor and don’t dent it by much of a margin.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone, even more so for fans of anime and/or hand-drawn animation. It’s emotional, it’s engaging, it’s beautiful to look at, it’s beautiful to listen to, I’ve gone on about it long enough, so go and see it if you haven’t already.

 

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