“Welcome to Marwen” caught my attention for two reasons: Steve Carell and dolls. It sounds like a strange but after watching the trailers, I knew that this was a drama which is unusual for Steve Carell and it featured dolls in a creative and unusual manner. I was hoping both elements would create a film that was imaginative with excellent performances. It was everything I wanted and more.
“Welcome to Marwen”, directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on a true story, is about an artist Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) who was brutally assaulted. Mark struggles with PTSD after the assault, having had his memories erased and to cope with his trauma, creates a fictional village that he uses to process as well as create artwork. Mark loves women and women’s shoes, especially wearing those shoes but is avoiding a sentencing hearing where he would have to face his attackers.
Fortunately, Mark has a lot of support, particularly from the women in his life, including a new neighbor, all of whom feature in his town of Marwen artwork. Each woman in his town of Marwen represents a real woman that he knows. Roberta (Merritt Wever) is the woman who runs the hobby store and supports his art. Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez) is his co-worker in the bar and grill. Anna (Gwendoline Christie) is the caregiver who checks in on him. Julie (Janelle Monáe) was his physical therapist in recovery. The new woman is Nicol (Leslie Mann), based on his new neighbor. As he constructs his artwork and interacts with both the real world and his imaginary one, it helps his recovery, allowing him to figure out how to find the strength in himself to overcome his demons.
This movie is incredible in so many ways. But I’m going to start with the story. In the film, Mark likes to wear shoes. He does this to embrace the essence of women so he can more easily be in tune with them and tap into the creative energy for his art. What the film captures his gentle love for women, not only physically but also their spirit. Despite his love, there is never a disrespect for the women in his life, just joy and friendship. That alone brings a beauty to the story but in the creation of Marwen, we also capture such psychological depths as we see how Mark deals with his trauma and his recovery.
One of the ways that this is explored is through the dolls that Mark interacts and brings with him on his journey. The dolls each stand for some relationship in Mark’s life, good and bad. The world is set in World War II Belgium, where the main character based on Mark, Captain Hoagie is a fighter pilot. He’s fighting Nazi soldiers and is cursed by a witch, Deja Thoris, to never find love. While surrounded by women, each of whom is a real person in Mark’s life, his stand-in remains alone, until he meets Nicol. What is amazing is the synchronicity between the story of Marwen and Mark’s life as Mark processes through his friendships, including his new neighbor, the muse for Nicol. Both the Nazis and Deja each are metaphors for struggles in Mark’s life and while it is obvious what each represents, it is the journey Mark takes in discovering the connections that is so compelling a story.
The details are part of what makes this film so engaging. The dolls each are brilliantly created, matching the actor playing the real person in Mark’s life. The work needed to bring the dolls to life in an interactive way on the screen is impressive. They are believable and rich in expression and realism. The design work on both the dolls, the town, and the environment is part of what brings Mark’s world to life and helps you understand his path to coping with his injuries.
Just as integral to the film is the acting, equal to the story and design work. This is very much a character driven story and without the brilliant performances, would not have been as superb. Steve Carell shines, bringing expressiveness and nuance to the part, a delightful mix of whimsy and imagination that is perfectly suited to his humorous style but balanced perfectly with the dramatic touches. He is able to bring to life both the pain as well as the artistic side of Mark and this is the perfect part for him. It is a delight to see such a great performance.
He is not the only actor that is excellent in this film. As each actress divides her time between the real world and the doll stand in, they display incredible expressiveness. Merritt Wever has balanced a subtle humor with her character’s support of Mark and her obvious caring that he manages not to notice. Merritt’s dry wit carries a lot of the charm of the film. Leslie Mann is beautifully sweet and kind as Nicol, handling her role with skill and charm. Gwendoline Christie, Eiza Gonzalez and Janelle Monae are all equally engaging, each packing a punch with their characters, providing those characters with depth and emotion despite most of the time portraying this all as a doll.
There are a few incidental insights that are easy for the audience to figure out but overall, these only highlight Mark’s journey as he figures out answers and processes his deep trauma. If you like a film with whimsy, with unusual characters, with people that any audience can relate to and charm oozing out of every scene, even the most painful, this is the movie for you. For me, it was one of the best films of the year, rich in detail, full of deep emotion and beautiful artwork. Even more, this movie makes me want to discover more about the real Marwen and the real Mark Hogancamp and I think anyone who watches this movie will fall in love as much as I have.
Rating 5 out of 5 glamanista dolls
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