Netflix UK film review: Welcome to Marwen
Matthew Turner | On 19, May 2019
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie
Watch Welcome to Marwen online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Director Robert Zemeckis has form for adapting critically acclaimed documentaries into narrative features – in 2015, he made The Walk, dramatising the events of 2008’s Man On Wire. Welcome to Marwen is based on 2010’s Marwencol, and in both cases, there’s a nagging feeling that the primary appeal for Zemeckis was an excuse to play with the latest gadgets in his effects toybox.
The film tells the true story of American artist Mark Hogencamp (Steve Carell), who was savagely beaten and left comatose, after telling some men in a bar that he liked wearing women’s shoes. The ordeal left Mark with severe memory loss, so he channelled his pain and trauma into an extraordinary art project. After building a WWII-era model village called Marwen in his garden, Mark staged and photographed intricate military rescue dramas with plastic dolls, casting himself as heroic Captain Hogie, who takes down squads of Nazis with the aid of Marwen’s sassy, gun-toting female inhabitants (voiced by Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie and Leslie Zemeckis).
Meanwhile, in the real world, Mark struggles to rebuild his life. He receives support from Roberta, the model shop owner who sells him his dolls (Wever again – each of the Marwen women have real-life counterparts) and encourages him to show up to the New York opening of his photography exhibit, as well as attend court to face his attackers. At the same time, Mark becomes attracted to his new neighbour, Nicol (Leslie Mann), whose angry ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson) quickly gets cast in Mark’s fantasies as a Nazi officer.
Throughout, Zemeckis cuts back and forth between Marwen – with the figures all represented by plastic versions of the cast – and Mark’s real life existence. It’s easy enough to see how the two correspond, but there’s no real sense of breakthrough and the attack sequences eventually start to feel a little samey, despite Zemeckis livening things up by throwing in references to Vertigo and Back to the Future. He never quite finds the right tone for the film – it sits somewhere between feel-good, triumph-over-adversity fantasy and downbeat indie drama with a blockbuster budget. He also piles on the sentimentality, which confuses the tone still further.
Similarly, Carell’s performance is fun when he’s voicing Captain Hogie (who shares Mark’s obsession with high heels), but frustratingly passive in the real-world scenes. The supporting cast are strong, particularly the extremely sympathetic Wever, and Mann, who works wonders with a potentially clichéd role. There’s also good voice work from Diane Kruger as fantasy witch Dejah Thoris.
Needless to say, the effects work is extremely impressive, not least in the contouring of plastic Steve Carell’s face. It also benefits from a commendable attention to detail, both in the depiction of Marwen and the way the dolls interact. However, it’s almost too obvious that the effects scenes are what most interest Zemeckis and they’re a little over-indulged. On balance, Welcome to Marwen is worth watching, but it never quite connects on the emotional level you’re hoping for.
Welcome to Marwen is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.