WELCOME TO MARWEN is based on the 2010 widely acclaimed documentary, Jeff Malmberg’s MARWENCOL. The doc follows the crucial event of April 8, 2000, when Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside of a bar by five men who beat him nearly to death after he told them he was a cross-dresser. After nine days in a coma and 40 days in the hospital, Hogancamp was discharged with brain damage that left him little memory of his previous life. Unable to afford therapy, he created his own by building a 1/6-scale World War II–era Belgian town in his yard and populating it with dolls representing himself, his friends, and even his attackers. He calls that town Marwencol, blending the names Mark, Wendy, and Colleen.
Robert Zemeckis’ film is however treats the material quite differently. WELCOME TO MARWEN is a fantasy drama. The film begins with a doll figure looking like Steve Carell flying an aircraft during WWII, shot down from the skies in Belgium where he is saved from Germans by a troop of beautiful girls. This fantasy world of dolls eventually dissolves into the
true story of Mark Hogancamp (Carell), a man struggling with PTSD. After having his memory erased from being physically assaulted, by five men beat him up and left him for dead, all because he told them that he liked wearing ladies’ shoes. Following the attack, Mark was left with little to no memory of his previous life due to brain damage inflicted by his attackers. In a desperate attempt to regain his memory, Mark constructs a miniature World War II village, called Marwen in his yard to help in his recovery. Unfortunately, Mark’s demons come back to haunt him when he’s asked to testify against the five men responsible for ruining his life. Mark’s PTSD is shown in the ilm to be caused by an overdose in taking his medication raster that the trauma itself.
One might argue that director Zemeckis is trivializing Mark’s personal tragedy. There are reasons many would think this way. In the script by Caroline Thompson, Mark falls in love with his new neighbour, Nicol (Leslie Mann in a dead serious role). It is this love for her that helps him recover and for him the strength to attend court and to pursue his doll show. The chance encounter with photographer, David Naugle, which afforded Hogancamp the opportunity to show his works is totally omitted in the movie. Nothing is shown of the hard work that went into the creation of the village of Marwen. When Nicol does not return Mark’s love, there is another, Roberta (Merritt Wever), who works in the toy store, in the waiting line.
The fantasy animation has the look of one of Zemeckis’ previous films POLAR EXPRESS. The sequences, though well-done is not shown convincingly to serve any purpose but to fuel Mark’s obsessions which in the film, is not shown to be a good thing. The dolls, a few topless are disturbing, especially when used as play things for a man who is not all there.
It is assumed that Mark finally gets it all together when he attends his court hearing. But by showing the culprits looking sorry of themselves, Zemeckis seems to have brought down what he has been building up throughout the film, that the guilty should pay for their bad deeds.
What ends up is a well-intentioned film that has lost its way from its storytelling. What could be a gut-wrenching real life recovery drama ends up as Hollywood feel-good fluff.