“WELCOME TO MARWEN” — 2½ stars — Steve Carell, Gwendoline Christie, Eiza Gonzalez, Janelle Monae, Leslie Zemeckis, Leslie Mann; PG-13 (sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language); in general release; running time: 116 minutes
“Welcome to Marwen” is easily one of the most creative movies this holiday season, but its subject matter is a little more adult than you might expect.
Based on a true story, director Robert Zemeckis’ film follows a recovering assault victim as he tries to summon the courage to confront his attackers.
Steve Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, a successful illustrator whose life is upended when he's attacked outside of an upstate New York diner. We meet Mark in the aftermath of the attack, living in isolation in a trailer outfitted with a variety of dolls and miniature sets he uses to create elaborate World War II-era scenes for photography projects.
Mark turned to the camera when the assault left him unable to draw anymore. But he also uses the dolls as a kind of coping mechanism, projecting his real-life struggles into a fantasy world set in the fictional Belgian village of Marwen.
Marwen is populated and protected by the women in Mark’s life. Russian immigrant Anna (Gwendoline Christie) is his real-life caregiver, Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez) is a cook at a local diner and GI Julie (Janelle Monae) is the therapist who helped Mark walk again after his attack. Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) is his favorite porn actress and Roberta (Merritt Wever) is the local hobby shop owner who is trying to give him a more grounded romantic relationship.
The women often come to Mark’s rescue during his fantasies, as he fights a never-ending battle against five Nazi soldiers who are stand-ins for the men who beat him outside the diner. “Welcome to Marwen” opens during the run-up to his attackers' sentencing, and the film’s plot is loosely constructed around Mark’s struggle to find the courage to attend the court date.
Other subplots involve additional women in Mark’s life. As the film opens, a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street from Mark, and smitten immediately, he quickly adds her to his fantasy crew. There’s also one mysterious doll in the collection — Deja, the “Belgian Witch of Marwen” (Diane Kruger) — that doesn’t seem to have a real-life human inspiration and seems to represent darker demons that take longer to reveal.
“Welcome to Marwen’s” signature feature is the way it weaves in and out of the real world and Mark’s elaborately animated fantasies, using a combination of CGI and motion-capture technologies. The imaginative effort fits alongside other creative Zemeckis films like “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future.”
But parents shouldn’t mistake the animated content as a sign that “Welcome to Marwen” is a film for younger viewers. Though the content stays in a PG-13 range, “Welcome to Marwen” explores many adult themes in addition to the violent assault itself.
Part of this has to do with the impetus for the savage beating. While refusing to call it a “fetish,” Mark nevertheless has a strong fixation on women’s shoes — he claims it connects him to the “essence” of women — and his admission to his assailants that he sometimes will wear women’s heels seems to be what triggers the heinous attack.
The creative animation is a clear strength of the film, and Carell does a fine job as the traumatized Mark, who tragically manages to blame himself for his own beating. At the same time, “Welcome to Marwen’s” story feels a little on the light side. We never really see a pre-attack Mark aside from flashes of clippings and old photographs, and by interpreting so much of Mark’s journey through his fantasies, it makes it harder to buy into the idea of a resolved character arc at the end of the film.
Altogether, “Welcome to Marwen” works much better as a creative portrait of a man wrestling against the nature of shame than as a well-drawn narrative.
Rating explained: “Welcome to Marwen” is rated PG-13 for a generous dose of action violence (albeit mostly with dolls), sporadic profanity and sexual themes and content, including nude drawings and references to a pornographic film.