When Marnie Was There

A quietly moving and melancholic outsider tale

There are many reasons this film will leave you sobbing. First of all this may just be Studio Ghibli’s last film, at least for long while, if not ever. What an extraordinary note to go out on. When Marnie Was There is prime Ghibli, top-standard and the epitome of the brilliance the Japanese anime powerhouse is capable of. It also happens to be their most understated film yet.

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Our Little Sister

A quietly touching family drama

Our Little Sister is a wonderful example of a sentimental yet ultimately subtle delight of a film. Watching it is a bit like being in a 128 minute-long embrace, warm and imitate with undercurrents of deep emotion. There’s no real melodrama – no dramatic shouting matches, intensive confrontations or shocking revelations – it’s far more real than that. We start the film with the character being total strangers to us then end the film feeling as if we are part of the family.

15 years ago a father left his wife and three young daughters behind. Soon after his heartbroken wife left the daughters in the care of her mother and left the town. 15 years later and the three, now fully grown, receive a phone call that their father has died, leaving behind his 14-year-old daughter who nursed him until the end. The trio – 29 year old Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 22 year old Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and 19 year old Chika (Kaho) – travel to his funeral and to meet their little sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). The girls make an offer to the now orphaned Suzu, that she could come and live with the three of them in their big house in Kamakura. 

What is so effective about this film as it doesn’t require a big overarching plot – there’s no big problem or issue to solve. Instead we watch the three women over a period of about a year as they bond and face different issues within their own personal lives. Days blend into weeks with only a few references to dictate how much time has passed – at one point the three tell their little sister that in six months they’ll be able to undertake the family tradition of making plum wine, later in the film they do so etc. This alone with the absence of a melodramatic narrative instead presents a more realistic portrayal of family life by choosing to instead use what is essentially a series of interconnected vignettes. Each of the girls faces different issues in their lives, typically resulting around love or work, some are returned to and resolved and others are not as they do not need to be.

The film plays a magical spell as you watch it, drawing you into the lives of four young women who are each dealing with the grief of a departed parent in different ways. All four girls are fully sketched out and wonderfully characterised by both positive and negative traits, each as charming at the movie itself. How the story is shown is as extraordinary as it is told, finding beauty in even the smallest of moments – such as the way a plum floats in a jar of plum wine – and within the landscape itself – with the ‘tunnel’ of cherry blossoms being a personal favourite.

Few family-based dramas whisper instead of shout. This is one of them. A film that is quietly powerful and immensely appealing.

4 stars

A Bigger Splash

A rockstar, a record producer, a documentary-maker and a recently discovered illegitimate daughter go on holiday…

The hardest thing I suspect I will find about writing this review is overusing the adjective ‘beautiful’ and its various synonyms, because that is what A Bigger Splash is. Beautiful. Beautiful cast in beautiful scenery that is beautifully shot and with a story that is beautifully told.

Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a rockstar of arena-like proportions. After surgery on her throat and vocal chords renders her mute for several weeks (as part of her post-operative recovery) she decides to go into reclusion with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They are staying on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria when their weeks of nudity and nookie are interrupted by the arrival of her ex-producer and ex-lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who has brought with him Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who recently discovered that Harry is her father. What follows will test the ties of fraternity, paternity and sexuality with catastrophic consequences.

The events of the film play out in a way that is unpredictable, sweaty and bitterly humorous. This is Swindon and Fiennes at the top of their respective games. Due to her character’s temporary muteness Swindon has little dialogue; the few lines she does say are husky and barely audible. Instead she says entire monologues on matters of the heart with her facial expressions – bitter rage, frustration, mortification, adoration and admiration shown through looks. A less-skilled actress would be constricted by her characters damaged vocal chords; instead what could be a limitation showcases the true skill Swindon possesses. The grace and manner of her movements and expressions, along her facial expressions, bring Marianne Lake: Rock Star to life. Both when painted in David Bowie-esque costume and make-up and when wearing nothing at all, it feels like you are watching the life of a real, if fatally flawed, person.

At 52, with countless film and theatre credits which demonstrate his mastery, it is incredibly impressive that Fiennes can still surprise. His Harry Hawkes is a bundle of raw energy, a magnetic charisma who dominates each scene. Along with providing the funniest moments of the film (and a dance sequence to The Rolling Stones that I challenge you to be able to watch without averting your eyes in bewildered embarrassment) he demonstrates the mythical fine line between comedy and tragedy. Harry Hawkes is a man who uses his charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to mask much inner-darkness. His self-destructive descent into hedonism is (dance sequence aside) utterly enthralling.

It’s a pleasure to see Schoenaerts on the big screen again, roughly 10 months since the release of Far from the Madding Crowd and his enamouring take on loyal and noble Gabriel Oak. His character here, Paul, is one who initially appears to have fewer layers than his romantic partner and love rival, but this proves that appearances can be deceptive. He is currently one of the most interesting and underappreciated supporting actors in cinema at the moment, and I greatly look forward to seeing more of his (admittedly rather beautiful) self.

And then there’s Dakota Johnson, of 50 Shades of Grey infamy. What A Bigger Splash succeeds in doing is adding another reason for why Shades is such a mediocre movie, as A Bigger Splash proves that not only can Johnson act but she is mighty fine at it. In fact, she well and truly holds her on with her fellow leads. Penelope is an intriguing character, made even more so by Johnson’s acting ability. Penelope is a character who almost defies description (in a complimentary way), suffice to say she is a product of her father in the best/worst of ways.

 There is one more crucial player in A Bigger SplashPantelleria itself. Located 100km southwest of Sicily (fact found courtesy of Google) it is a place I had not heard of prior to the film and is of such unrivalled beauty that I cannot escape mentally from the mysticism of it. Few places, when on the screen, are displayed in such heart-stopping and breath-taking beauty. The events of A Bigger Splash, when splayed out in a review such as this could seem almost borderline-soap opera. It’s the scenery, and the skill through which it is shown, that prevents this. Yes some sequences possess a degree of melodrama, but setting it in such a beautiful (alluring, dazzling, exquisite, stunning, and wonderful) landscape only elevates the emotional response of the subsequent events. However, it’s the slightly oddball, quirky tone of these events that makes the film truly memorable. Though the pacing is slightly stilled on minor occasions, with one or two plot points that drag, there is a humour tinged by darkness that makes the plot haunting and ultimately cataclysmic.

A sun-kissed soap opera told with class and comedy with an abundance of tragedy. A must-see.