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Anna (voiced in the English-language version by Hailee Steinfeld) is pretty down on herself. We don’t really know why, but she wants to hide herself away from the world. Her worried foster-mother sends her to stay with relatives (the Oiwas) in rural Hokkaido, hoping it will somehow help. In the countryside Anna discovers a lot more than fresh air. When Marnie Was There is reviewed after the jump.

The Oiwa’s home is set in a suitably beautiful Japanese countryside, bought to life by the gorgeous animation, exquisite sound design and wistful score, which have become a trademark of Studio Ghibli films. Lush pastures, gardens that burst with life and a lake that reflects the milky moonlight – it’s all here. Anna explores the area and becomes fascinated by a beautiful, seemingly abandoned mansion on the shores of the marsh. She’s told the mansion is currently empty, but she’s sure that there was a moment that she saw it lit up and fully restored. Dreams of the house and its beautiful young resident fill her head at nights and she’s unable to stop thinking about it.

One night she rows across the marsh to the house, where she meets Marnie (voiced by Kiernan Shipka), the beautiful girl who has been appearing in her dreams. Marnie is spontaneous, brash, and incredibly alluring. Anna is willing to do anything for her friendship, even promise that she’ll keep it secret. Anna visits Marnie regularly, but there’s something not quite right about her or the beautiful house. Why can she only find her after sunset and why is the house only alive certain nights?

When Marnie Was There weaves dreams, visions and reality into one. It’s a disconcerting viewing experience at times, but I think this is intentional. Anna is confused and therefore, so are we. Her dreams are bleeding into her waking hours and her heart into her dreams. Anna is searching for someone or something to value her in a world where she feels unwanted and Marnie does this for her. Their friendship fills Anna with a love she perceives her life doesn’t have and allows her to breathe again.

The need to belong is a primal human need and it’s something this film touches on quite beautifully. Your home may be different, your families may not be traditional, but knowing there is somewhere that you belong – that’s something we all desire.

John C. Reilly was a standout in the English language voice cast, voicing the kindhearted Kiyomasa Oiwa. His chuckles were an absolute delight. Unfortunately I felt some of the nuances of the film were missing due to the flat vocal performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka in the leading roles. The magic simply wasn’t there but I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is as simple as a lack of intonation. Given the choice, I would urge you to watch this in Japanese with English subtitles.

Based on the 1967 book by Joan G. RobinsonWhen Marnie Was There could be the last feature film we see from Studio Ghibli. The studio has been “on pause” since co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement and there have been no announcements regarding what’s next for the legendary studio. It’s somewhat fitting that the potential last film from the studio is one of female friendship and family. Studio Ghibli have bought some of the strongest, most complex female characters to life over the last 30 years – Kiki, Mei, Chihiro, Shizuku and Kaguya are but just a few. There really isn’t anyone else telling stories from a female perspective in quite the way that they have.

By Sam McCosh

The Facts

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writer(s): Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Hiromasa Yonebayashi(screenplay); Joan G. Robinson (novel)
Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Runtime: 103 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: May 14, 2015