A quick synopsis of ‘Welcome to Marwen’ could be that the movie is an unusual but inspiring story about an unfortunate situation that happened to an exceptional illustrator turned famous photographer. However, it’s much more. Why he became a photographer is where the heart of the story lies. The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis of ‘Back to the Future’ fame, is based on the true story of Mark Hogencamp (Carell), who was beaten severely by five men. He was attacked after drinking too much, at the bar he frequented, led to his talking too much. To these strangers he had just met he mentions a little something he likes to do to be closer to women, or as he put it, feel their essence. He admits to wearing high heels. Shocking the men, they call him queer and assault him, each delivering punches that cause severe trauma to his body, most importantly to his head. The blows were so distressing to him that Mark no longer has a memory of anything before the attack… not even of who he was. To handle what it went through, his brain dumped everything that wasn’t essential to survival. Because of this, Mark can no longer draw as he had before or even function normally. A nurse has to go to his residence to check up on him because he has no true sense of how to care for himself properly.
Seemingly wanting to work through the worst of it in some capacity, he still practices art but now it’s more cathartic for him. Instead of paper and pencil, Mark uses dolls and a camera. He’s turned his backyard into the imaginary town of Marwen in Belgium during WWII. In this town he’s built a world where he, or the doll of himself named ‘Hogie,’ is in peril. He photographs the dolls making real-life movements, not unlike what you’d find in a stop-motion film. And in Marwen, unlike in the bar where he was jumped, he gets to stage his rescue. He controls it all. Catching onto this, it doesn’t take long for you to notice that the five men who attacked him are represented here, as well, as five Nazi’s constantly running him down. His eventual salvation always comes by way of female dolls that are characterizations of real women in his life. These women have encouraged or enlightened Mark in some way. Most of them anyway. Enter a new neighbor, Nicol (Mann), who moves in across the street. When she shows up, his depiction of perfection gets shaken up.
When she enters the picture is also when the movie gets a bit strange. Strange could be either good or bad depending on how you look at things. Dolls are creepy, to begin with, so there’s that, but to be honest, how they’re used here is rather benign. Though the female dolls are exceptional beauties, until Nicol comes along he doesn’t pose them romantically or sexually at all. Well, there is one topless scene but it’s not to satisfy any lust within him. A doll named Deja and the Nicol doll that he creates immediately after meeting her are particularly important. They’re used by Zemeckis to reveal that through them he’s more comfortable communicating what he wants of or what he thinks is the reality in his life. Mark desperately needs someone to remind him that the fiction he has created isn’t real. Art may imitate life to a degree, but it can’t take over or you’ll miss out on genuine opportunities… which Mark almost does. Luckily for him, not everyone feels the need to placate his inner child. The film is heavy at times but very creative and imaginative. Carrel has incredible depth in his performance of this trauma victim. If you enjoy films that carry you away from your daily burden’s, ‘Welcome to Marwen’ will accommodate you quite nicely.