The case of Mark Hogancamp is a particularly upsetting one. Chronicled in the 2010 documentary Marwencol, he was beaten without provocation in a bar by five men in his home town of Kingston, New York. He barely survived, his memories of his past life virtually wiped out. Suffering from post-traumatic stress, Mark began to create a fantasy world in his backyard – a fictional Belgian WWII-era town called “Marwencol,” using life-like dolls to create scenarios which he photographed.
This outline forms the basis for Robert Zemeckis’ latest, Welcome to Marwen, which stars Steve Carell as Mark, a man who must soon face his nightmare: an upcoming courtroom date opposite his attackers. Early in the film, he meets new neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann), who soon becomes the inspiration for his fictional town’s latest resident. Frequently, fantasy and reality collide in Mark’s fragile mind, just as they do in Zemeckis’ film.
The opening sequence features the film’s biggest conceit, as Mark’s doll scenarios come to life. Played by Carell, “Captain Hogie” is the brave soldier in Marwen (the “col” comes later) facing down the Nazi hoards. Technically, it’s a marvel, as you might expect from the director of Back to the Future and Death Becomes Her, with Zemeckis using state-of-the-art motion capture technology to ensure the moving dolls resemble Carell and his co-stars.
Featuring Janelle Monaé and Diane Kruger as two other women who find their way into Mark’s imagination, it’s a very strange and not entirely successful ruse. In reality, “Marwencol” was Mark’s refuge and a place for therapy (the real thing, he reasoned, was too expensive). But these old-fashioned WWII interludes don’t add up to much from a narrative standpoint; less would’ve meant much more.
The film is also a little coy about Mark’s own proclivities. A cross-dresser with a shoe fetish (he has over 200 pairs in his wardrobe), it was this admission while drunk that got him beaten up. Zemeckis does touch on it, but almost casually, using Hogancamp’s amnesia as a way to skirt round the subject. Carell’s performance assures we’re always sympathetic to the cause, but Welcome To Marwen struggles to fully engage over its two hours.
Welcome To Marwen opens on 1 January. For more details, visit: /www.universalpictures.co.uk
1. All images stills from Welcome To Marwen.