Humans have myriad ways of reacting to trauma inflicted on the body, mind and spirit. They turn to addiction, they act out, they withdraw from society.
After a brutal beating by five strangers erased his memory and mangled his flesh, Mark Hogancamp employed all these methods, with uneven success. And then he immersed himself in another form of therapy: He painstakingly built an elaborate, 1:6-scale World War II-era Belgian town in his yard that served to fine-tune his diminished motor skills and, more intangibly, feed his hunger for a happier reality.
The story of Hogancamp, who before the assault was an accomplished artist with an obsession for the moral unambiguity of the Good War, was first told in the 2010 documentary “Marwencol.” “Welcome to Marwen,” a fictionalized version directed by Robert Zemeckis, is freed by the power of special effects to bring the fantasy to life.
The documentary’s dolls bore a reasonable resemblance to the real people they represented, but in “Marwen,” the figurines are almost lifelike, if Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” is your lodestar. They hash out strategy in a tiny tavern and stage battles with the Nazis who seem to turn up everywhere — in Hogancamp’s ramshackle home, a courtroom, even the pornographic movies with which he fills his hours.
The hero of the town of Marwen is the dashing Capt. Hogie, and guess what — he looks just like Steve Carell, who plays Hogancamp. A younger, smoother, more buff Carell, but still. The two of them share an unapologetic obsession (not a fetish, Hogancamp insists) with wearing women’s shoes. The 287 pairs that fill his closet help him tap into the female “essence,” he says, adding that “women are the saviors of the world.”
And Hogie is surrounded by women. Lots of women. He calls them the Warriors of Marwen, and by imbuing them with valor, Hogancamp seems to hint that he knows who the real heroes are in his own life.
There are dolls (Barbie-style, with nipped waists and mile-long legs) that replicate Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian Amazon of a caregiver; Carlala (Eiza González), the sassy waitress and confidante at his restaurant job; Jules (Janelle Monáe), the injured veteran who helped him through physical therapy, and Roberta (Merritt Wever), the sweet hobby shop owner who would gladly be more to Hogancamp than just a supplier of the latest miniature doodad (a tiny Purple Heart? Of course!) for his tableau.
Into the mix — dollwise and in real life — comes Nicol (Leslie Mann), a chipper new neighbor who captivates both Hogancamp and Hogie. She’s a dream girl with a hutch full of teapots and a closet full of flowered dresses, and Hogancamp sees in her a release from his crushing loneliness. In heartbreaking fashion, it’s brought home to him that fiction, alas, might be sweeter than truth.
Hovering over all (sometimes literally) is the malevolent Deja (Diane Kruger), the “Belgian Witch of Marwen,” who torments Hogancamp until he figures out what aspect of his life she embodies, a heavy-handed revelation that is not unforeseen.
Carell fully taps into the needy outsider that has informed more than a few of his roles. A viewer’s tolerance for such a sad sack might vary, but he’s believably touching as a yearning and damaged soul.
Mann bears a heavy burden as the romantic focus, but manages to avoid making Nicol saccharine and, dare we say, plastic. And special mention must go to Wever, who instantly warms up any scene she’s in.
Zemeckis ties up the proceedings in his typical treacly bow; we know that wounds this deep aren’t healed with a meaningful glance and a date at a sushi restaurant. But darned if Hogancamp, strutting in his knockoff Louboutins in the closing shot, isn’t standing taller than he ever did while shuffling along in his sneakers.