Trauma is a personal ordeal. It affects everyone differently and our methods of dealing with it vary as well. You can’t presume to understand what someone who has suffered trauma is going through at any given moment, nor should you be expected to. What is expected of you is to be a good and understanding listener. A thoughtful human being who can be honest and straightforward without being condescending or dismissive. The world is full of random moments that can trigger a trauma victim’s memories, causing them to behave accordingly. You have to be as versatile as they are trying to be; and be there when they have the strength to reach out next time. It’s no wonder Steve Carrell was cast to play a part that requires such delicate nuance and vulnerability.
In Welcome to Marwen, directed by Robert Zemeckis, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell) is an accomplished illustrator who recovered from a violent attack outside a bar. Because of his injuries, he can no longer write or remember his past. He decides to build and photograph a model town with dolls in order to process his grief. He named the town Marwen and set it in World War II Belgium. He relies on a caregiver named Anna (Gwendoline Christie) to bring him groceries and medicine, since he has trouble going anywhere without having an episode. His only trips outside are to a local restaurant, where he works, and a shop run by Roberta (Merritt Wever). Roberta sells the dolls that Mark uses for his town.
He constructs stories around his dolls and bases the women on people that helped him with his recovery. His doll is named Cap’n Hogie and is depicted as a manly soldier who protects Marwen from Nazis. The women of Marwen are shown as incredibly resilient and resourceful soldiers dressed in fabulous clothes. When a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street, Mark is stricken with curiosity and infatuation. She is magically added to the world of Marwen and Mark’s life, as well as Cap’n Hogie, is altered once more. He needs to overcome his insecurities, prepare for an upcoming photo gallery of his work, and also make a very important court date; but can he escape the fantasy he created to face the reality he’s ignored for so long?
Zemeckis is known for constructing hyper-realistic settings with characters that grab your attention. He’s done it with Beowulf, Polar Express, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. In this movie he gives us a miniature world of Nazis and women with unique personalities that love to dispense justice with as much firepower as they can find. You sometimes forget you’re watching dolls, but the humorous appearance and movement of their bodies remind you right away. Rather than keep us in this one world, Zemeckis juxtaposes that with a normal world of a traumatized photographer who can barely engage with other people. Because of Mark’s inability to communicate properly or express his anguish, he resigns those feelings to his passion project of Marwen. He imagines entire situations of romance and violence that his more capable counterpart can manage, with the help of his female friends. Zemeckis does a pretty decent job moving back and forth between these worlds; but as I became more intrigued by the real world, I started to find the Marwen scenes distracting.
The relationship Mark Hogancamp has with his female friends is the driving force of this film. Particularly with Nicol and Roberta. Mark’s life has become stagnant and he refuses, or is unable, to move forward. Nicol and Roberta aren’t his solution, but they can be his inspiration.
The visual and special effects when Marwen is alive is magnificent. It’s a live-action Toy Story with Nazis and a flying witch. I enjoyed how they applied actual physics to the way things moved around and interacted with each other. Mark incorporated those elements into his stories as well. They made for some interesting and beautiful photographs.
Where Welcome To Marwen struggles is the emotional connection. I found whenever the movie tackled something heart-wrenching, it used violent scenes as a defense mechanism so Mark didn’t have to deal with it. While I think this and the use of humor to diffuse tense subjects was a clever technique, it prevented me from being fully immersed in Mark’s life or his problems. There should have been a better balance of allowing the audience to empathize with the characters while also conveying Mark’s isolation and inability to cope.
Welcome to Marwen is a special story based on real events, and knowing that does give more weight to the movie. I still think the fantasy parts could have had more impact. Steve Carell gives another excellent performance this year. Leslie Mann is wonderful as well, but I believe the other standout performance is Merritt Wever. Her scenes have the most genuine sincerity in the entire film. I only wish we got more of her. I do recommend seeing this movie, but also check out the documentary about Mark Hogancamp’s life that came out in 2010.
About Welcome to Marwen
Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson
Stars: Steve Carrell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae, Eliza Gonzalez, Leslie Zemeckis
Runtime: 1 Hour, 56 Minutes