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D: Robert Zemeckis / 116m

Cast: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Leslie Zemeckis, Stefanie von Pfetten, Neil Jackson, Falk Hentschel, Conrad Coates

Following a vicious beating by five white supremacists that robbed him of any personal memories he had before the attack, illustrator Mark Hogancamp (Carell) has managed to rebuild much of his life, but he’s no longer able to draw. Instead, he has created the fictional Belgian town of Marwen, a one-sixth scale model of which he’s built in his yard. Populated by dolls that represent some of the people who have been important to him since the attack, Mark has created a World War II storyline for the dolls of Marwen, and he takes photographs of them in carefully staged positions. These photographs have become regarded as art, and an exhibition of his work is due to take place in the near future. Also due to take place is the sentencing hearing of the men who attacked him, something that Mark’s lawyer (Coates) is pressing him to attend. But with Mark suffering from PTSD, and the Marwen stories occupying so much of his time, it’s only the sympathetic attention of a new neighbour, Nicol (Mann), that starts to bring Mark back to reality…

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s certainly the case with Mark Hogancamp, a man so violently assaulted that his attackers literally “kicked the memory” out of him. In creating the fictional village of Marwen, Hogancamp gave himself a way back to “normality”, even if it was through the use of an alternate, fantasy world populated by revamped Barbie dolls and Nazi soldiers who never die. It’s this aspect of the movie, with its model sets and plastic toy figures and props that makes the most impression, and Zemeckis – no stranger to giving life to CGI characters based on real people and performances – gives these scenes an urgency and a vibrancy that makes Marwen the kind of place we’d all like to visit (even if we’re likely to be shot at by marauding Nazis). With a great deal of charm, and visual wit, Zemeckis and co-scripter Caroline Thompson have created a cinematic variation of Hogancamp’s imagination and story-telling that is in its own way, brave and affecting, and which touches on more serious themes such as gender identity, persistent emotional trauma, drug addiction, and social isolation. There’s plenty of humour here too, but it’s more knowing than it is overt, and there’s a sadness behind it that make it all the more effective.

But while the scenes with Cap’n Hogie and his female coterie are the backbone of the movie and its MVP, the rest of the movie feels more fanciful and fictitious than the idea of dolls toting sub-machine guns and wearing stilettoes during wartime (look it up). Hogancamp is portrayed as a lovable yet tormented man who is personable yet reserved, and socially awkward, yet the introduction of Nicol, whose character feels like a stock idea lifted wholesale from Screenplay 101, grates with every scene she appears in (despite the best efforts of both Carell and Mann), while Hogancamp’s PTSD is laid on with the thickest of dramatic trowels. Carell at least has the measure of the character, but is hampered by the script’s insistence on making him depth-free, and something of a perennial man-child. Elsewhere in the “real world”, there are a number of stodgy contrivances – Nicol’s ex-boyfriend and nasty piece of work, Kurt (Jackson), exists only so he can double for the chief Nazi in Marwen, Nicol is completely unfazed and unconcerned by Hogancamp’s liking for wearing women’s shoes – and after a while any excuse to return to Marwen is likely to be gratefully accepted by the viewer, because that’s where the movie’s true heart and soul resides.

Rating: 6/10 – immensely enjoyable when the action is based in and around Marwen, but stilted and perfunctory when set away from there, Welcome to Marwen is a movie that struggles to balance both halves of its necessarily fractured narrative; Zemeckis directs with his usual flair and gift for visual flamboyance (and gets to include a clever nod to Back to the Future), but is let down by his own decision to make the real world look and sound like a bad soap opera, and by making the dolls more human than the humans.