After going to see Welcome to Marwen I looked up Mark Hogancamp, the real life photographer this film is based on to see how honest the depiction here is and how closely it follows the facts of his life. What I discovered is that despite being honest with the facts, Robert Zemeckis’ film is painfully afraid of pushing itself to any extremes, settling for middle of the road entertainment and in avoiding the real story he has sucked the life out of Hogancamp’s story.
Welcome to Marwen tells the tale of Mark (Steve Carrell), who after being victim to a hate crime because of his tendencies to wear women’s shoes, begins to isolate himself from the people around him. Once a talented illustrator, the attack has taken his ability to draw or even write. To relax and recuperate he creates a miniaturised town called Marwen and begins to take photos of the dolls he populates it with.
While the story of Hogancamp is a compelling one, Zemeckis has given this story a family spin, a cutesy generalisation beneath the story he is telling, burying his past alcoholism behind throwaway lines and concentrating on making him out to be a victim instead, someone to be pitied, not admired. In fact the film’s conclusion plays for triumphant and feels childish and colourless.
Carrell clearly cares deeply about the character, giving a performance that never plays into the PTSD cliche of adding unnecessary ticks. Instead he plays it straight and contained, making Mark an untapped wellspring of emotion fizzing under the surface, but the film loses sight of this fact as it gets lost in the eye popping visuals of it all, avoiding the reason they came to tell this story in the first place
A film of two parts, not only does the film follow Mark through his recovery but also the fictional Hogie, the hero of Marwen whom Mark photographs on his many adventures through World War 2 Belgium, or at least the miniaturised version of it. For this fictional world Zemeckis animates his actors as if they were living dolls, much like Toy Story. However he doesn’t give anyone from Marwen a personality beyond the ones attributed to their real life counterparts. This world however is incredibly real to Mark and by burying it in generalisations, Marwen is trivialised.
You could point to the fact that this world is Mark’s fantasy where he is loved by all and nobody can hurt him but even Marwen has a fictional villain in Deja (Diane Kruger). Created to sap Hogie’s spirit as well as Mark’s. The idea of living outside of reality to heal is one Zemeckis leans heavily on but he creates conflict in both worlds to liven things up but he has created a fix for a problem for his fantasy world with no care for the dilemmas it creates in reality. Mark isn’t allowed to heal and Hogie is equally as damaged by this tampering. In fact the whole idea of healing is central to the whole proceeding but you never see it happen, we just have to assume its taking place.
It’s not all pain and misery though, Carrell gives his all and he is backed up by a equally subtle yet lovely Merritt Wever as they try to make the most of a cloying script designed to open people’s tear ducts. When Mark is in the real world, interacting with real people, including the miscast Leslie Mann as neighbour Nicol (without the E we are told, as if that adds character the script forgot to find over the course of two hours), the film is the endearing feature Zemeckis thought he was making. The duality of Marwen, the film and the place proves too much to overcome.
Because of this it is almost impossible to connect to Mark and the world he has created. What really sinks it however is the overall tone and a script that treats the women in Marks life as afterthoughts as he proceeds to refer to them as Dames despite being set in the early 2000s. The cultural insensitivity is easy to endure in fictional Belgium but when it transitions into Mark’s real life you know something has gone horribly wrong. For someone who has survived a beating by people who judged him for who he is, Mark should know better.