There is something tricky about properly illustrating the intricacies of mental illness. There is something tricky about properly illustrating the intricacies of sexuality. Both are such diverse and varied spectrums of light and expression and emotional stress that most filmmakers and auteurs steer away from the tasks completely. Often those two facets of humanity are given little thought and appear to be used as a sympathetic crutch. Other times the illustration that comes across the screen is one of ignorance (both malicious and naive) to conditions of life that our fellow humans are born with, endure, and live with every day of their lives.
I don’t mean to draw a parallel with these words between sexuality and mental illness, let me be clear. I mean only to speak to the immense complexity of the human condition, and the complexity therein of representing the members of a group so frequently left out of film, television, and fiction altogether.
Welcome to Marwen is a touching and thorough diorama of a man, Mark Hogencamp, struggling with his own demons and inherited limitations, played out across the charmingly bizarre landscape of upstate present day New York and the 1940s Belgian countryside. The setting itself seems a bit uncanny, sure, but it is the explanation for these settings that draws the viewer in immediately. Hogencamp lives in New York. His creations are the residents of Marwen, a small, country town in Belgium. It is with this information, and no more, Welcome to Marwen tosses its viewers into a harrowing tale of love, Nazis, addiction, depression, fear, and anxiety.
Mark Hogencamp, played brilliantly by comedy veteran Steve Carrell (The Office, Foxcatcher), is the victim of a brutal hate crime perpetrated by white nationalists. The assault left him damaged, not only physically (removing his ability to draw) but also mentally. He is timid, fearful, and quiet. Carrell is captivating in this role, embuing his scenes with bittersweet humor and downright heartbreaking finality.
The cast surrounding Carrell performs admirably. Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) has a brief physical appearance as a Russian caretaker. Eliza Gonzalez (Baby Driver), Leslie Zemeckis (Beowulf, Polar Express), Merritt Wever (Birdman, Signs), Janelle Monae (Moonlight, Hidden Figures), and Leslie Mann (Knocked Up, 40 Year-Old Virgin) all have great roles to play in the film. Most importantly, they all play two roles, because each actress plays a role in the real life portion of this movie, each also plays one of Hogencamp’s dolls from Marwen. It is a dynamic that I have a hard time drawing a parallel to, and due to the deftness of each role, a dynamic that is endearing and gripping.
Zemeckis (Contact, Forrest Gump) is at his best in this film. The transitions from life to diorama are creative and seamless, the layering of story, flashback, and internal struggle are pieced together perfectly, and the gravity of awkwardness – of pure, unadulterated difficulty – is distinguished with a skill that very few films can claim to exhibit. C. Kim Miles (Lost in Space, Project Blue Book) captivates the viewer with his expert use of cinematography, bending realities in easy strokes of angle and transition.
Truly, Welcome to Marwen is a phenomenal film that takes a survivor of humanity at its darkest and shows him rise triumphantly over those who seek to assert power by stoking fear. There are plenty of present day allegories to draw here. It is the story of overcoming fear. Defeating addiction. Living with mental illness. And yet, despite the lofty and challenging material it sets out to cover, it feels as if this movie’s execution is made easy purely by a level of love and detail invested in the frames of this project.
This movie could not have been made without that love. The story of Hogie and the women of Marwen deserved a skilled and passionate telling. Boy, did they ever get one. | Caleb Sawyer