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Uncanny valley of the dolls

Welcome to Marwen

Trish Lee

Charlie Masters


01635 886663

Film: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen (12A)
Running time 1hr 56min
Rating: **

WELCOME to Marwen is the sort of project Charlie Kaufman might’ve gobbled up under different circumstances. By some accident of fate, it’s ended up a Robert Zemeckis film and that alone colours it in ways its outlandishly strange conceit might not obviously suggest, peppering it with unconvincing whimsy. Zemeckis, the pathological sentimentalist behind Cast Away and Forrest Gump, is a pioneer of motion capture technology and he brings that arsenal to bear here in striving to depict the brilliant essence of a damaged mind. Regrettably, there’s something rather overcooked about the whole thing – the animation, while not without its moments, fails to meaningfully complement the live-action drama. The latter, for its part, feels much too contrived and conventional for its own good.

It would be no exaggeration to call leading man Steve Carell one of the most versatile actors working in Hollywood today. While best-known for his broad comic gigs (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman), he’s recently emerged as a dramatic force to be reckoned with, channelling the same awkwardoid persona into roles of an immeasurably higher emotional and intellectual calibre (see his mesmerising turns in The Big Short and Beautiful Boy).
In this biopic, he plays artist Mark Hogancamp, who endured severe brain damage following a brutal attack outside a bar. Amnesiac, depressed and robbed of basic motor functions, Mark retreated into a world of his own, constructing a miniature Second World War-era town where he set about restaging the traumas of his own life as Richard Attenborough-esque action spectacles (with a tragically embellished version of himself as the hero). When the sympathetic Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door, the meticulously-crafted existence Mark has carved out for himself is suddenly disturbed.

Carell, needless to say, is highly-effective in a billing that really brings out the depths of his eccentricity – it’s hard to see anybody else realising a figure like Hogancamp on the big screen with the same nuance and loving attention to character detail. Regrettably, there’s a film going on around him, and Welcome to Marwen has nothing on the dedication and self-discipline of its star. In that
quintessentially Zemeckian way (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol), it piles on slushiness while taking confused detours into the uncanny valley. There’s an intriguing ambiguity about Hogancamp’s vision that the movie only occasionally finds time to address; instead, it mostly busies itself with increasingly tedious fights between Mark and animated Nazis (representations of the thugs who beat him into a coma). Miniature Mark’s all-female entourage are modelled directly on the women in his life, including friend Julie (Janelle Monáe), carer Anna (Gwendoline Christie) and Roberta (Merritt Weaver), the toyshop owner who supplies him with materials for his dioramas; his DIY arcadia frequently betrays sexual overtones (one of the dolls is named after a porn star; Mark’s foot fetish figures heavily in his fantasies). The film barely toys with these objectifying connotations, however.
Whereas the animated sequences are frivolous and gung-ho, Mark’s personal torment makes for a solemn, often painful watch; in more capable hands, Welcome to Marwen might have milked this polarity to evoke unease and empathy, but Zemeckis is unable to reconcile these two threads. The film, then, feels off-centred, lacking the texture and intimacy of a strong character study. It’s a cauldron of compelling ideas. However, for all the cast’s efforts – and in spite of some engaging animation – the picture fails to get its feet off the ground.

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