Welcome to Marwen (2018) – Film Review

“I Was a Hell of a Good Artist, an Illustrator. I Loved to Draw, and Now, I Can Barely Write My Name…” – Mark Hogancamp

Co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureForrest GumpCast Away), Welcome to Marwen, released in 2018, is a dramatisation of the 2010 documentary; Marwencol, which recounted the true story of Mark Hogancamp, who, on April 8th, 2000, was brutally assaulted by five men who beat him almost to death, thrusting Mark into a nine-day coma and a forty-day hospitalisation period before he was discharged, woefully bearing severe brain damage that left him with little memory of his past life. Welcome to Marwen takes the tragic story of Mark Hogancamp and aims to provide it with a tint of optimism, romance and fantasy through its unique storytelling approach and dazzling visual effects. Yet, the film ultimately falls flat due to its confused tone and graceless screenplay, making Zemeckis’ invitation to enter the village of Marwen a leisurely one to decline. 

Plot Summary: After being ruthlessly assaulted by five men who left him for dead outside a bar in Kingston, New York State, yielding severe memory loss and trauma. Aspiring artist, Mark Hogancamp, constructs a remarkable therapeutic outlet on his property known as Marwen, a miniature World War II-era Belgium village compromised of period-dressed dolls. But, when Mark is requested to attend the court hearing of the men who mutilated him, his anguish returns to torment him…

Mark Hogancamp, the real individual upon whom the film is based, suffered injuries on every part of his body following the assault, subsequently placing him into a coma for nine straight days. As a result, most of the memories of his life before the assault were virtually extinguished, and the limitations of his health insurance prevented his continued rehabilitation. Sadly, only three of his assailants ever went to prison, with all three getting released within two years. Welcome to Marwen ignores many of these bleak details and outcomes, however, instead attempting to lace the story with more sanguinity and merriment as the film plays out over two planes; Mark’s plane of existence (our own) and that of the dolls, who, are enlivened via CGI in a fashion that could be described, as a more photo-realistic version of Toy Story (1995). It’s an admirable method of trying to infuse Mark’s despairing reflection of his assault with a dash of imagination and humour, but it’s predominantly an unsuccessful one, as this approach renders the film immensely inconsistent in terms of its pacing, tone and authenticity to the actual account of Mark’s horrific assault.

In a somewhat bizarre casting choice, Mark Hogancamp is portrayed by Steve Carell, who, whilst not awful, by any means, feels as if he lacks the acting aptitude required to depict Mark’s agonising trauma and isolation. But, Carrell does (of course) prevail with the more comedic moments, even if the gags themselves generally flop as Capt. Hogie (Mark’s gallant, plastic alter-ego) has a plethora of oddly placed witticisms. The supporting cast of Merritt Wever, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González and Gwendoline Christie all deliver passable performances (barring Christie’s overbearing Russian accent) yet possess little characterisation as the so-called; Women of Marwen, dolls that populate the tiny, make-believe village of Marwen, inspired by the powerful women Mark knows in his real life. Leslie Mann also makes an appearance in the film as Mark’s friendly, inexplicably curious neighbour, Nicol, who eventually becomes an object of affection for Mark in both his worlds, which occasionally comes across as rather uncomfortable as Mark lives out some of his romantic fantasies with Nicol through his dolls. 

Despite spending almost half of the runtime in the imaginary village of Marwen, Mark’s fantasies of himself and his female companions as heroes of the Second World War are often short on memorable shots. Lacking stimulating action sequences or grand set pieces to truly justify how much screen-time is spent in the village of Marwen, the rarely inventive cinematography by C. Kim Miles makes the scenes of the dolls socialising or firing at Nazis relatively visually flat, that is, barring the well-rendered visual effects.

On the more positive side of things, the original score by Alan Silvestri is equally adventurous and diverse, with tracks such as MagicYou Got ThisBeautiful Moon and Marwencol, all harmoniously balancing sorrow, yearning and genuine tension while featuring a snare drum to further play into the World War II setting of Marwen. The score also includes some auditory references to Zemeckis’ earlier filmography, including a callback to the signature motif of the Back to the Future trilogy.

Nevertheless, the finest aspect of Welcome to Marwen is, by far, its CG effects, which brilliantly utilise motion capture to employ the faces and body movements of its cast onto plastic figurines clothed in World War II-era outfits/uniforms. As such, every scene within Mark’s fantasy world oozes with detail and toy-related visual gags, even if the animation of the dolls periodically appears overly fluid compared to the somewhat rigid reality of poseable figurines.

In summary, the current stage of Zemeckis’ career has long been repressed by his obsession with visual effects, repeatedly concentrating on style over substance. Welcome to Marwen is no exception to this rule, with the numerous sequences set within Mark’s fictitious world being the film’s most enjoyable moments. Thus, Welcome to Marwen fails to flourish as a wonderous, period-set adventure or a rumination of violent hate crimes and personal trauma, merely existing as a creatively ambitious misfire. Rating: low 5/10.

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