I always tend to enjoy films that play with the imagination as a means of dissecting abstract emotions. Whether it’s a guy breaking from his mundane life to achieve an adventure beyond his wildest dreams, or kids creating their own fantastical world to cope with the suffering of those they love, these films give us permission to escape into ourselves in order to work through depression, fear and loneliness, and secure a strong, healthy pathway to heal. Welcome to Marwen, the true story of man fighting to overcome the demons that haunt him through the stories he creates with a set of dolls, portrays its hero in a serious way without taking away from inventiveness of the human mind.
Steve Carell stars as Mark Hogancamp, a magnificent artist of World War II comics who’s brutally attacked to within an inch of his life by a group of guys who find his fetish with high-heeled shoes a bit too gay for their liking. The injuries leave Mark without any prior memories of his life and the inability to write his name, much less draw. As he puts it, “they kicked his memories from his head.” In order to cope, Mark creates a magnificent world set in a small German town during World War II, where he tells a very intricate story through a series of photographs of dolls from the local hobby shop.
The main character in this fantasy is Cap’n Hogie, who represents Mark. The other characters are a team of badass women that represent those who have helped Mark through his recovery. This includes his physical therapist (Janelle Monáe), his nursemaid (Gwendoline Christie) and the owner of the hobby shop (Merritt Wever). Sitting in the eves and watching the characters fight the Nazis is Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a Belgian witch that holds an infatuation with Hogie that forces her to vanquish anyone who gets even the slightest bit close to him.
On the eve of sentencing the men who attacked Mark, Nicol (Leslie Mann), a beautiful, loving redhead, moves into the house next door. Mark is instantly smitten with her, prompting him to add her to his fantasy world, despite having no influence on his recovery thus far.
There’s no hiding the fact that the fantasy world of Marwen is a reflection of Mark’s psyche. The women represent the wall he’s built up shielding him from harm and outside influence; Deja is that unknown force keeping Mark secluded and unable to find strength to break free from his nightmare; and the Nazis represent Mark’s attackers, men who have seemingly taken not only the memories of his past, but have put a stranglehold on his ability to move past the incident, represented perfectly by the Nazi’s power to resurrect themselves no matter how many bullets his protectors blast into them.
Then there’s Nicol. As Mark and Nicol’s relationship builds into a loving friendship, Hogie and Nicol fall deeply in love with one another — a love that Deja is unable to stop. Their love in Marwen signifies the hope Mark needs for a better future, allowing him to systematically break from his shell and push himself to do things that he might not have done otherwise.
These fantasy sequences are well-done and the link to the main story threads are perfectly orchestrated. Having Mark’s stories take place in the past not only set up an enemy that he can control, but it represents his attempts at finding the past he once lost through those who help him in the present. It’s a meaningful connection that seems to be triggered most when he is called upon to testify at the sentencing hearing. The simple thought of having to face his accusers scares Mark to his core, and Marwen is where he knows he will be able to fight that fear.
For some, it may take awhile to digest the importance of the film and understand what director Robert Zemeckis is trying to do. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the movie until I started to write this review, and dug deeper into the connections between fantasy and reality.
At first glance, side stories and characters seem to fall short in finding any meaningful connection to the overall story. There’s Nicol’s ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson), who shows up a couple of times to no real effect; there’s the women in Mark’s life, who aside from one scene, are never explored outside of the fantasy world; and then there’s Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten), the woman who initially found Mark after the beating and then disappeared from his life without a second thought. Yeah, we don’t necessarily need to know these characters beyond the essence of the impact they had on Mark, but with a lack of development, we aren’t able to connect with them in the way Zemeckis may have intended.
Upon further analysis, though, this forced distance is actually what gives the film its power. Whether it’s a love that’s been lost or a force that might interfere in a connection you never thought you’d have again, it’s how Zemeckis conveys what otherwise can’t be visually translated. It’s super subtle, yet when you’re able to put the pieces together and pull the threads in the right direction, it turns into a very moving and emotional testament to those who have gone through similar struggles.
If there is one flaw in the strokes Zemeckis uses to paint his portrait it’s playing a little too close to the line bordering on pandering vs. nurturing. It’s apparent that everyone in Mark’s life truly cares for him and want him to get better, yet at times it feels as if they are pretending to care about him to his face, but laugh at his eccentricities when his back is turned. I know this couldn’t be farther from truth, but that impression does creep into the film at times, making it feel a bit odd and unsure of itself.
It can be hard to overcome a tragedy, and a lot of people are afraid to face their fears. What’s even harder is the ability to represent that on screen without simply telling the audience what someone is feeling. Welcome to Marwen does an excellent job of helping us understand what someone that has been through a tragedy like this might be going through while giving us the ability to help them through it without forcing them to do more than they are capable. Sometimes it just takes a little friendship, a little space and a little love to help someone find hope for a remarkable future.
My Grade: A
The Favourite is chock full of great performances, conniving betrayals, and quirky subtleties, but for the life of me, I could never seem to wrap my head around the oddities of the characters that infuse the film with a sense of whimsical sadism. B-
Despite the amount of questions and suspension of disbelief that’s needed to swim through Aquaman, James Wan utilizes his Furious brand of high-octane CG-spectacle and Jason Momoa’s quirky sense of humor to good effect, lifting a rather bland story (and the annoying set-up for Aquaman 2) to something entertaining enough to justify. B+
Next week, new movies include Holmes and Watson and Vice. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.