Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
When Marnie Was There
Asthmatic and depressed, twelve-year-old Anna is sent to visit relatives on the coast for the summer in hopes that the fresh sea air and a change of scene will help her. She becomes fascinated by an old house on a tidal marsh and meets Marnie, the girl who lives there. The two girls form a strong bond, but there's something odd about Marnie and her home that Anna must come to understand in this beautiful story about finding your peace with the world.
When Marnie Was There, a film from Studio Ghibli from 2014, is a difficult story to describe. Based on the 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson (as of this writing out of print in the United States but in print in the UK), the story explores themes of anxiety, betrayal, and a sense of belonging in ways that are meaningful without being preachy. Although the story has been moved from Norfolk to Hokkaido, it is timeless and universal enough that most viewers will be able to accept the idea that a foreign family used to own Marsh House without any qualms, and even book purists will find plenty to love in this moving adaptation.
The heroine of the story is Anna, a twelve-year-old girl who was orphaned twice, first with her parents' deaths when she was a year old and again by her grandmother's passing a year later. Put into the foster care system, Anna was adopted by a loving family, but she has never felt fully at home with them, even less so when she discovers that they receive a subsidy for her care. As a result she is an anxious, uncomfortable child, always holding herself apart from others and prone to panic-induced asthma attacks. Concerned, her adoptive mother sends her to stay with family on the coast. Anna quickly becomes fascinated by the seemingly abandoned mansion on the edge of the salt marsh, and one night she notices that there appear to be lights on. This leads her to investigate and to meet Marnie, a girl around her own age who says she lives there. Marnie and Anna promise to be each others' secrets and best friends, and through Marnie, Anna slowly comes out of her shell.
Naturally there is more to Marnie than we see at face value. Viewers will quickly notice the discrepancies between the house Anna sees in daylight and the one she visits after dark, to say nothing of the way Marnie and the people in her house dress. This is the one area where the updating of the film does not quite work – everyone in Marnie's world is clothed like it's the 1920s, which works with the timeline of the original novel but is too far back to quite work with the movie's clear 2014 setting. (Cars and smartphones make it easy to establish when the movie takes place.) That aside, there is very little to complain about. Actress Vanessa Williams, who plays Hisako/Gillie, says in the included behind-the-scenes feature that the story is both heartbreaking and encouraging, and I don't think I could sum it up any better. Through Marnie and Anna's relationship, we see Anna learning that not everyone wants anything more from her than her friendship, that her existence has value to the world. Before she meets Marnie, we see her curling into herself at school functions or running away when she spies someone her own age approach. She guards her sketchbook as if allowing people to see her art will steal a precious piece of her soul, and her opening lines talk about how she feels perpetually outside the charmed circle of life, looking in from the cold. This is a girl who feels abandoned by life, and it is a little ironic that through a ghost she finds that she hasn't been. Marnie, too, seems to learn something from Anna: that she shouldn't give up hope. Her cheery exterior hides a lot of pain, and through their interactions, the girls help to heal each other, which is beautiful but melancholy, because we're never quite sure if Marnie is really there.
As always with Ghibli films, the animation is exquisite. There are a couple of stiff CG scenes, but you aren't likely to spot them unless you're looking for flaws, and the body language, particularly Anna's is nuanced exceptionally well. The feeling of being a socially anxious child forced into a “friendship” by well-meaning adults is particularly well done, and the warmth of the couple Anna is staying with projects off the screen. (John C. Reilly as the husband is especially good in this regard.) Side characters are equally well realized, such as Nobuko's unexpected maturity and the impatience and determined focus of Sayaka/Scilla comes across intensely. Dream-visions are always preceded by a black screen, which takes a little getting used to, and the pacing feels a little jerky in places, but on the whole, this would be a treat to watch – and listen to; the soundtrack is lovely – even without the story.
This release contains three separate dubs – the English, the Japanese, and the French, all of which are very good. Each has its particularly strong voices, and on the whole I found I preferred the English. Japanese Marnie, Kasumi Arimura, sounds a bit old, as does French Nobuko (Juliette Poissonnier), and French Marnie, Emmylou Homs, gives the character an ethereal quality that neither Arimura nor Kiernan Shipka quite pull off. Anna is equally strong in all three versions, and as English subtitles are available for all three, finding the voices you prefer is not difficult. (The song Marnie hums in the dance scene remains the same regardless of language.)
Disc extras on this two-disc DVD/BD set include the usual original and Western trailers, a making of feature, a look at the artist, extensive storyboards (animation buffs should not skip this), and the aforementioned behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast. This was my personal favorite, as it was interesting to hear the reverence with which the older actresses talked about Ghibli (the younger ones didn't appear to have any opinions on the studio) and what the story meant to each of them. Among the most interesting comments were Geena Davis' observation that there were so many nuanced, interesting roles for women in the film and the fact that when talking about what Marnie meant to Anna, Kathy Bates began crying. To know that the English cast had such a meaningful experience making the movie gives it an extra layer and helps us to see the universality of Anna's story.
When Marnie Was There is a film for anyone who ever felt outside the circle. The original novel is often categorized as a ghost story, but that's really too easy. It is more akin to a time travel book, although that doesn't quite capture it either. When Marnie Was There exists in a nebulous fantasy realm somewhere between the two, which might normally be called magic realism, but it isn't quite that either. In the long run it doesn't matter (although in literature terms it does make it hard to classify), but those who do not like Ghost Stories should not use that as an excuse to not watch this film. Although it may reasonably be called a tear-jerker, it is uplifting as well. Equal parts bitter and sweet, Anna and Marnie's friendship is one that sticks with you, and the full-circle nature of it (a bit more conclusive than the novel's end) makes you smile through the tears.
Editor's Note: this review was originally published with references to specific language and menu glitches that upon further investigation were the result of a faulty disc. These issues cleared up once the disc was replaced.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ Exquisite adaptation of the original novel that stands on its own just fine. Quietly emotional and relatable, gorgeous scenery and soundtrack. Interesting extras and three very strong dubs.
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