“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the colour of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the colour of poo.” These are the opening lines of Mary and Max, read in the lovely warm voice of Australian national treasure Barry Humphries, and are an early indicator of the overall tone of the 2009 claymation film: honest, often childlike humour, but with an ever present vein of sadness cutting through.
Written and directed by Australian animator Adam Elliot, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Eric Bana, Mary and Max is the follow up to his Oscar winning short from 2003, Harvie Krumpet and is his first feature length film. Despite the involvement of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and being warmly received at many festivals including opening night of Sundance 2009, the film, bizarrely, did not get picked up for a general release in the US.
Much like the previous instalment of CEL Mates, The Illusionist, the story is set in the past (this time in 1976), and revolves around an unlikely friendship between a lonely young girl and an older man, both of them outcasts or rejects in their respective spheres, existing on the fringes. Like Alice and Tatischeff in The Illusionist, the titular Mary and Max are also from different countries, and in fact different continents; Mary is from sepia-toned suburban Australia, whilst Max lives in a black, white and grey Manhattan. However, the pair never leave their respective homelands, instead communicating through letters.
Elliot has clarified that the ‘based on a true story’ statement that appears before the opening credits is not strictly true; he said that the character of Max was inspired by his own pen pal in New York that he has been in correspondence with for over twenty years. If the letters from real life Max are anything like the ones written by his plasticine counterpart, they’re definitely worth a read.
The unlikely friendship starts when Mary picks his name at random in a US phone book, in order to write him a letter asking if babies in America are found in cola cans, as her Grandpoppy Ralph told her babies in Australia are found by dads at the bottom of a glass of beer. Being 8-and-a-half, Mary includes lots of details about her life in her letter that the recipient will know nothing about, such as her pet cockerel Ethel, her father’s pursuits in amateur taxidermy, and her mother’s love of ‘testing’ sherry. Fortunately, or rather, unfortunately, Max is as lonely and friendless as Mary is. Confused and scared of the world around him, this little girl reaching out to him out of the blue is something that he grasps on to, so he decides to respond to her question.
The back and forth of the letters is the perfect format for Elliot to exhibit his style and humour. As each describes events in their life through voiceover, we see them played out by the character; a collection of short humorous sequences grouped together, interrupted by totally unrelated non-sequiturs and irrelevant questions to the other (Max asking the 8 year old Mary if she has ever been a Communist is brilliantly absurd). We watch their friendship grow and their worlds bleed into one another, illustrated wonderfully by the letters appearing in the colour palette of their respective origins, as they discover they share many interests and similarities; the biggest being their shared love of children’s TV show ‘The Noblets’.
However, the vein of sadness mentioned above is ever present; take the crux of the whole story – two loners who become best friends but live on the other side of the world from one another – it’s a heartbreaking notion. Whilst both Mary and Max are sad souls, it is Max’s story that is most tragic as he experiences a string of traumatic events throughout the film; from the unearthing of repressed memories from his bleak Jewish upbringing, due to reading Mary’s letters, to being sectioned, his ride is a rough one.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is perfect as the lonely, misunderstood Max, bringing such depth to the plasticine figure through his (very exaggerated, heavily Brooklyn accented) voice alone. It is a testament to what a varied performer Hoffman was; if he liked the look of something he would sign on. Even if the film was worlds away from the sort of fare an actor of his calibre would be expected to appear in (looking at you Along Came Polly), or a voice acting role like Mary and Max, he would give it his all. Like any of his roles, watching (or in this case hearing) Hoffman’s performance will make you miss him deeply.
As Hoffman’s final roles are released theatrically over the coming months, do yourself a favour and watch a great one you may not have seen before.