Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

An overlong high-fantasy anime released this year. It concerns a race of immortal weavers who isolate themselves from the world and record its history through the reams of tapestry they produce. The main character Maquia is warned off forming attachments by the clan's chief, who says such entanglements end in unhappiness. To love is to be alone.

The story is set up to refute this thesis. Maquia's home is attacked and she finds herself stranded far away from her country. Moreover, she finds a newborn child whose mother has been murdered, and decides to adopt and care for him. The immortal is brought down to earth, and has to deal with the real-world pressures of motherhood. Although the anime wanders off into a steampunky Laputa-esque fantasy narrative about clashing kingdoms, that stuff ultimately provides a backdrop for Maquia's relationship with the growing Ariel, who she looks over as he matures, falls in love and has children of his own.

Parenting is therefore the central theme of the story. The decision to have children is a way of ending your detachment from the world. You have skin in the game in a way you don't when you dispassionately look over events from an ivory tower, as the weavers (literally) do. It's significant that the director Mari Okada is one of the few female creators making internationally-fêted anime films. It's a valuable perspective to have in what is mostly a male-dominated industry.

The anime strains very hard to build to an emotionally powerful ending, slipping into melodrama if not bathos in the effort. I found this a bit cloying and wearying, and note that the understated approach of masters like Miyazaki and Takahata is often more effective. Okada also doesn't effectively integrate the personal story of Maquia and Ariel with the wider tale of the kingdom they live in. Instead there are awkward leaps between one and the other, making the whole thing feel longer than its 115 minutes. It's not perfect, in other words. But then again, there's also nothing quite like it.


"Just as the infinity spread out before my gaze contracts above my head into a blue ceiling, so my transcendence heaps up in the distance the opaque thickness of the future; but between sky and earth there is a perceptual field with its forms and colours; and it is in the interval which separates me today from an unforeseeable future that there are meanings and ends toward which to direct my acts." - Simone De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity



The film isn't shy about drawing the parallels between Brendan Gleeson's Father James and Christ. He is a good man. He knows that he is to be killed. He dies for the sins of others. In the final moments of the film it's implied that his gospel of forgiveness has at least one convert: his daughter picks up the phone to his killer – a superhuman act of forbearance and mercy.

John Michael McDonagh's approaches the issue of abuse in the Catholic church in a sideways and scattershot fashion. The film's characters treat it with lacerating black humour rather than earnestness. There's something deeply weird about how disconnected the performances are from any shred of sincerity. When Father James picks up his daughter from the train station and sees the evidence of a suicide attempt, he makes a joke, and she responds in kind. It's the sort of wisecrack-rich dialogue you would get in noir – and perhaps this is one.

There is a mystery, after all: who will kill the priest? But actually guessing the identity of the murderer is a mug's game. There's no hint dropped during the priest's rounds through the week that points to the killer. It could be anyone. And in a sense, it is. Father James is persecuted by the society around him, who mock his attachment to a faith and institution that has been discredited.

My favourite character in the film is Dylan Moran's obscenely rich Michael Fitzgerald, who made his millions in finance and then fled to the countryside after the 2008 crisis to avoid prosecution for the 'irregularities' he was responsible for. He makes explicit the tenor of detachment in the film, at times coming close to sounding like Camus in his bemusement at the meaninglessness of existence. The contrast that structures the story is between this community's listless sliding towards suicide and the integrity and courage Father James gains from his faith.

John Michael McDonagh calls attention to the artificiality of his film. At one point Father James discusses with his daughter what the third act twist of their play will be. On many occasions characters comment on the poor lines McDonagh has given them. The effect has the most bite when Aidan Gillen complains that his sarcastic doctor character is a cliche, and that Brendan Gleeson has a better role to play. For me this starts to smell a bit of the filmmaker apologising for his work rather than standing behind it. Admitting that the pieces don't fit doesn't actually make the pieces fit any better. If the film ends up overreaching itself, and relying a little too much on Gleeson's performance to pull it together, it's nonetheless still very watchable. And Gleeson is very good company.