My Week with Marilyn *** ½
Directed by: Simon Curtis.
Written by: Adrian Hodges based on the books by Colin Clark.
Starring: Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark ), Kenneth Branagh (Sir Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Dame Sybil Thorndike), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Emma Watson (Lucy), Toby Jones (Arthur Jacobs), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Dominic Cooper (Milton Greene ), Richard Clifford (Richard Wattis), Zoë Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg), Derek Jacobi (Sir Owen Morshead).
At one point in My Week with Marilyn, they are watching her act out a scene in The Prince and the Showgirl, her 1957 film co-starring and directed by Laurence Olivier. She has been a terror on the set so far – showing up late, if at all, drunk or high on pills, needing constant reassurance from her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, and essentially being an insecure mess. But as they watch her perform in one scene, one character says to Oliver “When Marilyn gets it right, you don’t want to watch anyone else”. This pretty much sums up Marilyn Monroe’s onscreen appeal. As I watch more films with her, I am often struck by how inconsequential the films themselves are – like The Prince and the Showgirl, many of her films are fun, but lightweight. And yet, when Monroe is onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off of her. I have loved her in pretty much every film I have seen her in, even if I don’t much care for the movies themselves. And it’s more than just her looks that made her one of the biggest sexual icons of the 20th century. She seems so sweet and innocent – so naïve and lovable. This is a quality that cannot be taught to actors – you either have it or you don’t. Monroe had it. What is remarkable about Michelle Williams’ performance as Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, is that she captures that quality perfectly. Any gifted mimic could master Monroe’s trademark little girl voice and her mannerisms. It takes a remarkable actress to capture that screen presence Monroe had. And Williams absolutely nails it.
The film itself, much like Monroe’s films, does not rise to its star’s level. Perhaps it’s impossible to, since by its very nature, the film is fairly lightweight, straight forward, and lacks any real plot. This isn’t a biopic that seeks to explain Monroe – certainly not something as complex as Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film, I’m Not Here – but does seek to show us all the different sides of Monroe. On that level the films works amazingly well – and there are many fun touches along the way.
The film centers on Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a rich kid who dreams of being a filmmaker. He shows up at Laurence Olivier’s studios, and refuses to leave until he given a job. He ends up being hired as “3rd Assistant Director”, which is essentially a gopher. Whatever anyone else on set wants, it’s Colin’s job to get it for them. The Prince and the Showgirl is about to start shooting, and along with that, Monroe will be arriving with her many movie star demands that Olivier is not used to dealing with. He is a serious actor and filmmaker – a constant professional, and he’s unprepared for what Monroe is about to bring down on his orderly set. He is angry from day one with Monroe’s tardiness, her constant messing up of the lines, her constant need for reassurance, Paula Strasberg’s presence and all this nonsense about Method Acting. “Whatever she needs is right there on the page” he screams at one point, to which Strasberg responds “The lines are there, but the character is not”.
Everything that goes on around Monroe is delightful and well handled here. It must have been a real treat for Kenneth Branagh to play his idol Olivier in this film, and although he doesn’t much look like the star, he nails his voice and his mannerisms – even when having to don the ridiculous accent that Olivier used to such great effect in the movie. He doesn’t go as far as Williams does in becoming the famous person he’s playing, but to be fair, he isn’t really given the chance to – his role is much more of a surface level one. As is Judi Dench’s as Dame Sybil Thorndike, but it also must be said that she delightful in her scenes. Julia Ormand is quite good as the insecure Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s wife, who finds herself replaced onscreen (she played the role Monroe has on stage, but is too old for the screen version) and fearful that Olivier wants to replace her off-screen as well. Eddie Redmayne is all wide eyed adoration as Clark, who starts out as a gopher, and becomes Monroe’s main on set confidant – and perhaps even more. The period details are handled well by director Simon Curtis.
But the reason to see the film is Williams’ remarkable turn as Monroe. Made up as she is, she looks enough like Monroe to pass as her (although Monroe was more full figured), but that’s the least interesting aspect of her performance. Williams is asked to show so many different sides of Monroe – her onscreen charm, the way she wins over an audience of adoring fans in person, her onset insecurities, her drunken, drugged out behaviour, her free spirited ways away from the set, and the sad little girl Monroe was in real life – just trying to find love. Williams nails every aspect of an immensely difficult performance. There are so many ways it could have gone horribly wrong, but she sidesteps them all. The movie itself is good – very good in many ways – but Williams is remarkable.
In total, My Week with Marilyn is not a great film. In fact, without Williams performance, the film very easily would have almost definitely turned out merely okay at best, and quite poor at worst. But a performance like Williams’ has the ability to raise the level of the entire movie. It truly is one of the best performances of the year – and the movie surrounding it, is at the very least, pleasant.