Arrietty (Karigurashi no Arrietty), 94 mins, not yet rated, opens 12 January 2012.
We have a Pope (Habemus Papam), 104 mins, rated M, opens 1 December 2011.


(This is my review as published in the Dec 2011 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

When one of your favourite books becomes a film, the question arises: if I see the film, will it spoil my precious memories, or will it live up to my expectations? The uneasiness is even worse in terms of casting: will the filmmakers give the right faces to your favourite characters? I was crushed when Matt Damon was cast as the lead in the film of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (Thornton, 2000). In my mind, it was Brad Pitt! More recently, fans of the David Nicholls novel were disappointed to learn that American Anne Hathaway was to play quintessential British girl Emma in the film of One Day (Lone Sherfig, 2011). But by all accounts she did a creditable job.

Arrietty, the latest anime film from Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2001) and many other films), is based on the 1952 classic children’s fantasy novel, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. It was my favourite book when I was 8.

The Borrowers tells the story of the Clock family: father Pod, mother, Homily and Arrietty, an adventurous 14-year-old girl. The fantasy is that the Borrowers are tiny people (about 10cm tall) who live under the floor in big people’s homes. They are not fairies, and they do not have magical powers. They live by “borrowing” things that the “human beans” won’t miss and don’t need. Everything they have they borrow, or make from borrowed things: a sugar cube, a pin, a tissue.

The Borrowers won the 1952 Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, and in 2007 it was judged one of the ten most important children's novels of the past 70 years. The stakes were high for the success of this film.

While Arrietty is animated, updates the story a bit, and changes details here and there (most notably, the setting has been changed from 1950s England to 2010 Tokyo), I was absolutely delighted with the film. It is beautiful-looking, and captures perfectly the wistful, whimsical tone of the novel – which was also deadly serious and terrifyingly suspenseful at times, as the Clock family faced the great jeopardy of living alongside the sometimes-inquisitive human beans. Remembering the moment in the book when the rat-catchers were called to smoke out the “infestation” still chills me to the bone.

If you have not seen any of the Studio Ghibli films, and if you think of animation as something for kids, then Arrietty might just be the film to change your mind. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and developed and adapted from the novel by legendary studio-head Hayao Miyazaki, this is a film the whole family can enjoy. There’s exquisite animation (the raindrops are a wonder in themselves), and lively characterization (the English language voice cast includes Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty (Atonement, 2007, Hanna, 2011), Mark Strong as Pod (Sherlock Holmes, 2009, The Guard, 2011) and Olivia Colman as Homily (Tyrannosaur, 2011).

There’s also a charm to this film that’s hard to describe. Perhaps it’s because Hayao Miyazaki and his colleagues waited nearly forty years before adapting The Borrowers. They thought that in the current economic climate, the era of mass-consumption is ending, and the idea of borrowing instead of buying has great appeal. So, 50 years on from the book’s publication, Japanese animators have breathed new life into a children’s classic. Arrietty opens on 12 January 2012.

Opening in December is We have a Pope (Habemus Papam), an Italian fictional film from prolific director Nanni Moretti. Both comic and moving, the film shows us a newly-elected Pope (the brilliant Michel Piccoli) who suffers a panic attack just as he’s about to be revealed to the faithful in St Peter’s Square. The film gives a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the machinery that runs the Vatican.

The Guardian described some of its scenes as “brilliantly witty” but, like me, thought the much of the film uneven and meandering. After a brilliant setup leading to a climactic scene on the Pope’s balcony, the film loses momentum, perhaps because the plot keeps the new Pope oddly separate from the psychiatrist brought in to treat him, played by director Moretti.

Surprisingly, too, Moretti resists the opportunity to attack the Church and the papacy directly, even though his most recent feature film, The Caiman (2006), had targeted Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi head-on. Instead, Moretti gives us gentle satire, combined with a moving view of frailty in the man chosen to represent God on earth. In the end, the film’s main virtue might well be its unpredictability: I found the last scene absolutely jaw-dropping.