Film Review: “My Week with Marilyn”

by Jason LeRoy on November 23, 2011

Michelle Williams in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker

written by: Adrian Hodges

directed by: Simon Curtis

MPAA: Rated R for some language

My Week with Marilyn is a sweet, frothy, optimistic little confection anchored by a genuinely dazzling lead performance by Michelle Williams. While the film is based on two memoirs written by its protagonist, Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne), it feels more like a giddily nostalgic fantasy than a behind-the-scenes biopic. It gently portrays some of the demons that lead to Monroe’s untimely death just five years later, but is much more concerned with showing the wildest dreams of a privileged young man coming fantastically to life.

Colin Clark isn’t necessarily the working-class underdog for whom we’d normally root in this kind of scenario. When he decides that he desperately wants an entry-level job working for Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) on his first non-Shakespeare directorial effort, The Sleeping Prince (which would become The Prince and The Showgirl), he already had quite an advantage: he came from a wealthy upper-class British family that traveled in the same social circles as Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond).

When he shows up at the production office and refuses to leave until he’s been hired, it seems like the kind of dogged persistence we can get behind – until Leigh sees him waiting and simply says, “Oh, hello Colin! Oh darling, you remember Colin, don’t you? You simply must give him a job on your film!” Which makes the entire gesture seem like some pointlessly theatrical spectacle along the lines of Steven Spielberg’s kid showing up at Lucasfilm and shouting, “I’m not taking no for an answer! You’ll have to throw me out!”

And so, wide-eyed young Colin is hired as the third assistant director on the film. While this is essentially a fancy title for an intern, Colin gradually finds himself being assigned to more and more tasks involving the film’s charming yet difficult star: the one and only Marilyn Monroe (Williams). She arrives in England with husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), the latter of whom she insists be constantly at her side throughout production. This will become one of many sore spots for Olivier, who also finds himself contending with Monroe’s near-constant lateness, inability to remember lines, and off-set drama.

But everyone seems to agree that the good, when it does shine through, more than outweighs the bad. And of course, she is also a huge star. As the shoot continues, Monroe finds herself warming to Colin. His sweetness and youthful exuberance attract her, and soon she informally designates him as her best friend and confidante on the set. Colin, naturally, is giddy about this development, despite the warnings of Milton (Dominic Cooper), a member of her team, who cautions that she is notorious for forming intense but fickle connections with men on film sets.

Colin gradually begins seeing glimpses behind the “Marilyn Monroe” persona, touching and troubling alike. But the film never begins to approach the crushing darkness of Norma Jean and Marilyn, the wrenching HBO melodrama which starred Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino as the dual sides of Monroe. If a Marilyn neophyte were to watch this film, its story would lead them to think she was just a ditzy, enigmatic movie star who was emotionally needy and occasionally mixed booze with pills.

This gives all the more credit to Michelle Williams, about whose performance there simply cannot be enough said. With one heartbreaking glance, she tells the audience everything about Marilyn that the film would rather address indirectly. Who would have thought that Williams, that understated hipster pixie, could give perhaps the definitive big-screen performance as the most iconic actress of all time? An actress who seems like Williams’ opposite in every conceivable way other than hair and skin color? Williams has always been a fantastically soulful actor, but here she utterly transcends any limitations that may have been placed on her throughout her career. With this turn, she leaps to the frontrunner spot in the Best Actress race.

Redmayne, playing a very different sort of wealthy mid-century young man than in Tom Kalin’s egregiously disturbing Savage Grace, brings a relentlessly positive energy to his performance that helps maintain the tone of the film. Branagh effortlessly glides through his role as Olivier. And the rest of the accomplished cast seems content inhabiting various backstage cliches: the cheerful grand dame (Judi Dench), the foul-mouthed manager (Toby Jones), the wardrobe girl love-interest (Emma Watson, whose role seems to have been significantly edited down; the first time we see Colin pursuing her, it’s about as jarring and sudden as a “scene missing” title card).

Everything about the film is played with such cheerful warmth and affection, it is easy to find oneself wondering if maybe Marilyn Monroe didn’t die just a few years later at the age of 36. You certainly won’t find any reference to that unpleasantness here; the epilogue merrily informs us that Monroe went on to film Some Like It Hot the next year, which became her greatest success yet. Yay? These were clearly deliberate choices by the filmmakers, who’d rather leave out the more lurid and tragic aspects of Monroe’s brief career. And that’s fine; I’ve always found that microcosm biopics work much better than exhaustive and laborious efforts like J. Edgar. And after all, this is not really about her. It’s about Colin Clark, who had a thoroughly excellent time during his week with Marilyn.

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