The View From Here

Edinburgh Film Festival -- Mary And Max

Michael Bonner

I have to admit, rather pathetically, that my cumulative knowledge of claymation is limited to the exploits of Morph on Tony Hart’s TV shows and, of course, Wallace And Gromit. Profoundly ill-equipped as I am, I nonetheless caught up with Mary And Max this afternoon. I will report now that this is some clear distance away from the cosy world of Aardman. Oh, yep.

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Narrated by Barry Humphries, Mary And Max is a idiosyncratic story about the 20-year, long distance pen-friendship between the two protagonists. Mary Daisy Dinkle is an 8 year-old girl living in Australia. Her favourite colour is brown and she has a pet rooster. She has a birth mark on her forehead “the colour of poo” that she detests. Her mother chain-smokes and drinks sherry – “tea for grown-ups” which needs to be constantly drunk “to check the temperature”. Mary learns from her grandfather that babies are found by daddies at the bottom of their beer glasses. With typical child-like curiosity, she decides to find out where babies come from in America and pulls out Max’s details at random from the New York phone book. Max Horowitz, an obese 44 year-old Asperger’s sufferer, lives in Manhattan with a collection of animals, including a succession of goldfish, all called Henry (at the start of the film, we find him consigning the recently departed Henry VIII to a watery grave down the toilet). He is, you might quickly ascertain, an unlikely friend for Mary. But they’re both fans of chocolate and, crucially, an animated TV show called The Noblets.

It strikes me, reading this back, that there’s something saccharine sounding about the story, written and directed by Oscar-winning Australian animator Adam Elliot. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Elliot shapes a strong narrative about these two seemingly incompatible friends that visits some very dark places – particularly Max’s horrific anxiety attacks and the other distressing aspects of his Syndrome. It is a film about profoundly lonely and isolated people, and the astonishing connection they make. As the grown-up Mary, Toni Collette finds much sweetness in her character, but it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max who dominates the film. He brings a vivid sense of despair to the character.

Visually, the film is fantastic, as you might expect. Mary’s scenes in Australia are shot in a brown/rusty palette, the New York segments in cold, grim grey. Both characters are weird and freakish to look at, which to some degree I suppose is deliberately designed to emphasise their otherness, their outsider status. Elliot does a good job of articulating the tenderness of their growing relationship through their letters, and how, in turn, they grow as people through the correspondence. It is, I guess, a more mature experience than we might be used to with Wallace And Gromit (or even Tim Burton’s animation work). Big points, too, for using the Penguin Cafe Orchestra on the soundtrack.

Right, off -- finally! -- to see The September Issue. I'll blog about that in the morning, sitting on a train back to London...


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