To say the American box office welcome to Robert Zemeckis’ latest has been lukewarm is putting it mildly. Welcome To Marwen is reportedly set to lose Universal in the region of $50 million after a dismal Christmas opening: bad news for the studio and potentially for the film’s director, who seems to be on something of a losing streak in terms of box-office following World War II drama Allied and The Walk (2015).

Despite its Oscar-winning director and man of the month Steve Carell in the leading role (January also sees him in Beautiful Boy and Vice), the film is a difficult sell. The story of an artist who, after being brutally beaten by some local thugs, creates his own form of therapy to help his recovery has cinematic potential. Indeed, it’s based on a true story, that of Mark Hogencamp, and was made into a documentary in 2010. It’s a narrative full of thought-provoking themes: Hogancamp is suffering from PTSD and creates a WWII model village populated by dolls based on his real-life friends. He has his own alter-ego, American serviceman Hogey, who’s the eternal hero and, in his imagination, he’s able to re-live what happened to him and come to terms with it.

It’s a film that could have gone in many directions. There’s plenty of social themes in there – attitudes towards people with different lifestyles (Hogancamp has a liking for wearing women’s clothes), the effects of PTSD and its treatment are just a couple – but, whichever road it was going to take, it was never going to be an easy one to sell to audiences. The sad thing is that Zemeckis has taken the easiest of easy ways out and given us a diluted version – a fable about friendship, mixed with a will-they-won’t-they romantic sub-plot. Realities, like the lack of money to pay for healthcare that resulted in Hogancamp’s DIY approach to his therapy, are pushed to one side. Other issues are treated superficially or, once again, ignored.

All of which makes for a film with not so much a soft centre as a soggy one. Zemeckis has always had a tendency towards the sentimental, often of the cloying variety, and he slips easily into it here. And, while his decision to use performance capture to depict the characters from the model village is sound – it’s a technique he pioneered well before it was taken seriously – it does nothing to disguise the film’s glaring shortcoming. It doesn’t understand its own story and misses the opportunity to have a real voice.

On the plus side, there is, of course, Carell, playing to one of his biggest strengths – portraying sympathetic, vulnerable men. It makes him a great choice for the role and, as he’s hardly ever off the screen, he provides a reason for watching the film. But only just. Even he can’t prevent that leaden feeling of disappointment that goes with the credits at the end. Marwen isn’t likely to be more welcome in the UK than it was in the US.

Welcome To Marwen review by Freda Cooper, January 2019.

Welcome To Marwen