On paper, Welcome to Marwen should have been a hit. Helmed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Contact, Polar Express), starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, with supporting performances from Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, and Eiza Gonzalez, and featuring some fantastic visual effects, this could have been a call-back to the brilliance of Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.
Unfortunately, what we got was an estimated $50-60 million loss for Universal Studios, largely due to a bevy of poor reviews spurred by clumsy and disjointed storytelling that makes it difficult to connect with, learn about, or even care for any of the characters. Also, Zemeckis seems to have gotten too caught up in relying on the effects-laden scenes rather than telling a great story.
Marwen is based on the tragic real-life events of artist Mark Hogancamp, played here by Carell. (The acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol also examined Hogancamp’s life and art.) Back in 2000, Mark was out drinking one night when he casually admitted that he likes to collect and wear women’s shoes to feel closer to their essence. This admission was overheard by a group of five guys (portrayed as white supremacist, neo-Nazis in the film, but actually homophobes in real life) who took him outside and brutally beat him, leaving him for dead.
The beating left Hogancamp in a coma for nine days and brain damaged, with absolutely no memories of his life before. Barely able to even write his name following the incident, it also robbed him of his ability to draw. Hogancamp turned to photography instead, where he created the elaborate, fictional World War II-era Belgian city Marwen where he stages dolls in elaborate sets and situations, all to perfect 1/6-scale.
The film begins a few years after the beating, where Mark is established in his photography career, and has an upcoming exhibition. Also looming over him is the trial of his attackers, which his lawyer wants him to attend to read a victim’s impact statement to ensure it’s entered into the record so they don’t get off lightly.
On the one hand, I understand what I think Zemeckis was going for in his story. Mark can’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, so we’re given only very limited information about him from before. What we do glean is from quick snatches of images flipping through old scrap books, or snippets of conversations overheard from others. Old Mark apparently drank a lot, served in the Navy, and was an illustrator for some comics.
Current Mark suffers pretty severe PTSD from the beating. He is shy, awkward, afraid, closed-off, and fairly heavily medicated. We get the sense he could die in his home and no one would notice for days. He also leads a very controlled and structured life, with his only pleasure coming from photographing Marwen and wearing his massive—more than 280-pair—collection of women’s shoes. Carrell does a great job in the role, rising above the uneven storytelling, showing us Hogancamp’s pain and vulnerability, with nary a trace of Michael Scott to be found.
To compensate for his sad reality, Mark creates the alter-ego hero, Cap’n Hogie, who is a dame-lovin’, Nazi-killin’, lady-shoe-wearin’, alpha male of Marwen, a town populated entirely by women representing important people in Mark’s life. Unfortunately, all is not perfect in Marwen, as it comes under repeated attack from Nazi SS soldiers, and any women that Hogie gets close to are zapped light years into the future by the Belgian Witch, Deja Thoris (voiced by Kruger), who actually represents Mark’s growing addiction to pain medication.
Further complicating our ability to connect with Mark is the fact that the scenes in Marwen-town are so unlike his real-life that they end up feeling disjointed from the rest of the film. These random scenes are filled with action, humor, and life, along with Nazi ambushes and brutal gun fights where Hogie frequently finds himself captured and nearly killed by a band of Nazis that continually comes back to life. The Nazis clearly represent his real-life attackers regularly returning to Marwen to inflict damage and re-enact the trauma of Mark’s beating, where ultimately he is always saved by his women of Marwen.
Whereas the real-life scenes are a bit soft by design, the doll scenes are all fascinating visually and razor detailed. You can see every pebble-grain of texture in Hogie’s bomber jacket, along with the intricate outfits of the women. These scenes are often filmed up close—like Mark’s photographs—so we see every articulated joint and intricate movement from the dolls along with the fine detail Mark puts into his set decoration. It all looks great.
Audio here is presented via 5.1 DTS-HD Master, with the all-important dialogue well recorded and intelligible. The battle scenes in Marwen provide some sonic excitement, as does the film’s opening plane crash, with my processor’s Dolby Atmos upmixing doing a nice job of placing flak explosions overhead.
Ultimately, Marwen is an interesting but forgettable film, but it’s not a total waste. Its effects scenes look fantastic on the home screen, with a truly unique visual style somewhere between animation and stop motion. And the story was interesting enough to keep me curious and watching to see how it concluded, and to turn to the Internet to find out more about the actual events behind it. Also, due to its dismal box office performance, it currently appears that Marwen’s 4K disc release has been scrubbed, meaning the only way to enjoy it in better-than-cinema quality is to get the 4K HDR download from Kaleidescape, available now for a very reasonable $19.99.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.