Sometimes a memoir has to be taken with a grain of salt. In My Week With Marilyn, a retelling of a young man who has the time of his life on and off-set with Marilyn Monroe, things can become a bit eye-rolling. How much actually happened manages to be less important. What is essential is a small glimpse into something we may already know but remains heartbreaking nonetheless: Marilyn was an imperfect creature trying to keep from being swallowed alive by her fame. Despite not answering much of the whys and remaining mostly fluff, director Simon Curtis gives Michelle Williams the daunting task of playing Monroe near the peak of her popularity and she nails it. You can look at stills as much as you want, but the moving image allows Williams to blend into the role and become something audiences can fall in love with all over again. Hit the jump for my full review.
Young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) wants to get out from under the shadow of his wealthy family and so he sets off to work in film. He is given the role of third assistant director (a glorified gofer) on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1957 film from director/co-star Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). As if that wasn’t enough, Olivier’s co-star is the effervescent Marilyn Monroe, arriving in Britain to expand her brand and become a “real” actress. She is encircled by enablers (Dominic Cooper and Toby Jones) and is freshly married, but the struggles on set lead to her finding a crying shoulder in the innocent Clark that has everyone, including himself, nervous. You see, it’s OK to fall in love with Monroe at a distance, but those close should beware. As the up-and-coming Monroe battles with the gruff and at times crass Olivier, the film shows us how double-sided fame can be, particularly in the legendary Monroe’s case. While she flirts and flaunts in front of press and the public, she has anxiety about walking on set until she knows exactly what she is doing. Trouble is, no one can tell her what that is and the film veers wildly from comedy to drama and back, all within 99 minutes.
Williams’ has to be given credit for taking on a thankless role. Playing the bombshell blonde couldn’t have been an easy task, and one can imagine that she was as nervous to step on set as the real Monroe was. Curiously, they filmed in the same Pinewood studios the actual film was shot, and Williams was given the same dressing room. I’m sure that didn’t up the ante. At all. Yet, she manages to convince the audience when she is given room to breathe life into her character, and the first long sequence with her and Redmayne will have you drawn helplessly in. By now we know the duality of the Monroe legend: the flirtatious sex-symbol that was as flawless on the outside as she was troubled mentally. The film can’t help but touch on that, yet it only does so lightly. Tragedy is down the road for the 30-year-old, but it isn’t there yet.
The true showcase are two points during the film. The interaction between the British-styled, classic actor in Olivier and the Method-acting Monroe, complete with script analyst and coach, is a constant point of contention. Olivier wants her at her best, until he realizes he may never get her at all if he allows her to go on the way she is. Constantly late, cowering from criticism, and yet a scene-stealing presence with a burdensome desire to become a real actress. Never mind that Monroe is the blonde American and Olivier is the brunette Brit. The styles of acting here are what butt heads.
The other tale is Clark growing up without his parent’s guidance and sharing in the boundless joy that Monroe could possess. He plays our surrogate audience, and while he isn’t all that interesting by himself, his innocent charm holds Monroe’s attention and that is enough for us to follow him through the tale. Do they fall in love? Hardly. But they certainly spent a lot of time together, and that can be filled in with your own imagination, or, thanks to Clark’s memoirs and now Curtis’ film, we can get that angle as well.
The film may not leave a lasting impression as a whole, but the cast cannot be faulted for their efforts. Emma Watson scowls and blusters as Clark’s brief flame, while Dame Judi Dench is positively charming as Dame Sybil Thorndike and steals scenes as best as she can. Sometimes she plays a buffer between Monroe and Olivier, and she isn’t afraid to rebuff Olivier as well. Thorndike gives off the stately veteran actress vibe and coos and calms Marilyn. There is laughter to be found with the film, which keeps it light, while the inherent sadness of any tale dealing with Monroe will have darkness.
Thankfully, the entire film is a delightfully fast-paced romp through a life that burned far too quickly. My Week With Marilyn gets its title from one of two Clark memoirs focusing on the adventures on set of The Prince and the Showgirl, and it is no surprise that the focus is on Marilyn. This is light fare that doesn’t bother with seeking answers or giving us a direct view. Monroe is as much a mystery as she ever was, so it’s hard to find fault there. Bolstered by Williams’ charismatic performance that captures the allure and the demons, Simon Curtis’ first foray onto the big screen is a recommendable reminder that there is no one like Monroe out there, nor will there likely ever be.