Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Welcome to Marwen (2018) is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp, an illustrator and artist who, following an horrific attack, creates and photographs the miniature World War II-era fantasy village of Marwen using repurposed fashion dolls as a form of therapy for his trauma. Having lost the memory of his life before the attack, Hogancamp uses his art installation to help him make sense of his situation. His alter ego in Marwen is heroic fighter pilot Cap’n Hogie, joined in his quest to defeat the Nazis terrorising the village by fictionalised versions of his female friends. Director Robert Zemeckis’ film was originally titled The Women of Marwen as, in the fantasy scenario, they are the women who guard the village – a sanctuary protecting Hogancamp from further attack.
The concept makes perfect sense as a Zemeckis film.
I come to this film as a lifelong fan of the films of Robert Zemeckis. The concept makes perfect sense as a Zemeckis film. He made his name through inventive combinations of fantasy and reality, where the ordinary and unusual find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. It is the spine that runs through his adventures with Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000). Reality and fantasy are interchangeable in the dark delight of such gems as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and the underrated Death Becomes Her (1992). His past work is a masterclass in how to seamlessly incorporate visual effects into an engaging narrative without losing sight of the emotional thread. That is why Welcome to Marwen would seem like the ideal project for him to run with. The film employs a combination of live-action filming and motion capture technology that has been prevalent in much of Zemeckis’ recent work. The technique is perhaps more appropriate in the make-believe world of Hogancamp’s Marwen than its slightly awkward deployment in the likes of The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007). In Welcome to Marwen, the emotionless, expressionless motion-capture doll figures of the fantasy sequences take some getting used to, particularly as they evoke the look and sheen of some ‘not actual gameplay’ footage from a video game commercial. As these sequences occupy a large amount of the runtime, they could run the risk of leaving the audience somewhat disengaged and detached from the human story.
And it is the human story that is of the most interest. The majority of the heavy lifting in terms of the emotional through line of the film falls to Steve Carell in the lead role of Mark Hogancamp himself. Carell has been emerging as a very capable dramatic actor of late, with his complete immersion into the persona of John du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014) a particular eye opener. He plays Hogancamp with great sensitivity, showing hidden depths that his film career has only hinted at thus far. Unfortunately, he is occasionally left slightly stranded by the limitations of the screenplay (co-written by Zemeckis and the usually reliable Caroline Thompson), which sometimes doesn’t know what to do with itself on the occasions when it leaves reality and enters the realm of Hogancamp's fantastical imagination. Life imitates art for Mark Hogancamp, and vice versa – it’s just a bit of a shame the screenplay isn’t often more subtle about it.
There are moments where the film manages to transcend these shortcomings. Hogancamp's largely solitary existence is disturbed by the necessity to attend the sentencing of his attackers. Perhaps appropriately, his attackers are portrayed as rather one-dimensional, cartoonish figures. We see them fleetingly in dark, red lit flashbacks of the brutal attack and on the periphery of two courtroom scenes. The first of these courtroom scenes is one of the most affecting and impactful moments in the film, as Hogancamp's imagination nightmarishly transforms one of the convicted gang members into an SS officer, resulting in an intense fantasy gun battle, leaving a terrified Hogancamp able only to crawl out of the courtroom on his hands and knees. It is one several cleverly staged depictions of the cruel torment that is PTSD (though, notably, it is never called this in the film).
[Welcome to Marwen] feels like a missed opportunity to make something truly distinctive and challenging.
Hogancamp’s main real-life relationship revolves around his tentative, burgeoning friendship with Nicol (“without the ‘e’ on the end”), played by Leslie Mann. Having recently moved in across the street, Nicol finds a fascination in her new neighbour's gentle demeanour and eccentric art, and Hogancamp finds another muse to add to the population of Marwen. However, I found the most interesting relationship to be that of Hogancamp and Roberta (Merritt Wever), who works at the model shop where he is a frequent customer. Roberta really cares for him, and there is a familiarity and natural tenderness to their friendship that acts as a welcome contrast to the intentional artificiality of Hogie’s relationships in Marwen.
Ultimately, I did like Welcome to Marwen, but as evidenced by the amount of references to his other films in this review, I was reminded of times Zemeckis has done this sort of thing more successfully. Having not yet seen the documentary Marwencol (2010), upon which this film is based, one senses there is a complexity to Mark Hogancamp's real-life story that is slightly diluted in the Hollywood-endorsed version. This is one of many films that have taken their inspiration from documentaries, with varying degrees of success. Zemeckis has form in this himself, with The Walk (2015) being an adaptation of James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire (2008) (about Philippe Petit’s death-defying wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center). It does beg the question, ‘what can a semi-fictionalised film version bring to the table that makes it a worthwhile, standalone project?’ In the case of Welcome to Marwen, much of it feels like a missed opportunity to make something truly distinctive and challenging. It certainly deserved to do better at the box office, and it’s pleasing to think it might find a new lease of life on ‘home media’. Thanks to Carell’s lead performance, an emotional resonance eventually breaks through the glossy veneer, but the end result is that of an interesting, yet frustratingly superficial film.