“My Week With Marilyn” showcases two captivating women in one star-making performance

 
 

Before I get to discussing My Week With Marilyn as an engaged-yet-impartial critic, I have a few words I’d like to say to Michelle Williams.

Dear Michelle,

Hey there. Thanks for reading my review, first of all — but let’s skip the chit-chat.

Michelle, you’re causing me problems. Because your performance in My Week With Marilyn is beyond my ability to capture in words or wildly gesticulating hands. It’s not just the ease with which you completely became Marilyn Monroe in all her breathy, messy, ethereal glory — which is a tremendous feat on its own. No, it’s much more than that. You made me understand how it feels to be in the presence of something too beautiful and too fragile to grasp. Your performance left me stunned, and amazed, and incapable of speech. It was simply one of the most astonishingly beautiful performances that I have ever seen.

I also think you may have knocked a few points off my Kinsey rating, but that’s a story for another time. At any rate, thank you. You reminded me why I love going to the movies.

Now. Where was I?

Ah, yes — My Week With Marilyn tells the true (if you believe most memoirs to be entirely accurate) story of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young man who through his fortunate connections to Sir Laurence Olivier and his own tenacity secures a job as a gopher on the set of the 1957 romp The Prince and the Showgirl.

When the film’s star — Hollywood bombshell Marilyn Monroe — arrives in London with a Strasberg acting coach and new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) in tow, it immediately becomes clear that she is looking to establish herself as a “serious” actress. Unfortunately this doesn’t sit well with co-star and director Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who just wants the girl to be sexy and hit her marks.

Feeling overwhelmed by the project, Monroe withdraws, and is alternately doped up by her manager, Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper, as a sneering, dapper Yank), and manhandled by her acting coach, losing favor with Olivier and the crew with every missed call and confused on-camera gaffe.

Michelle Williams and Dougray Scott

Like most men of the time, Colin has fallen madly in love with Ms. Monroe — so when she turns to him as a confidant, he is more than happy to oblige (and since he’s actually getting her to report to the set, Olivier looks the other way). As Colin’s relationship with Monroe grows closer and more complicated, his tentative romance with costume girl Lucy (Emma Watson) begins to sour, and Marilyn’s behavior becomes more more erratic.

My Week With Marilyn is not just a love letter to Ms. Monroe — it’s a valentine to movie-making in all its ridiculous, vanity-charged, tightrope-teetering glory. The scenes on-set are wonderfully tense (it really seems a wonder that they finished the picture) and hilariously uncomfortable, and will no doubt delight fans of classic films and real Hollywood royalty (including Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, played here by Julia Ormond).

At the center of all the fuss is of course Marilyn. Marilyn, whose very presence on a London street causes a spontaneous riot. Marilyn who speaks of herself as a white-trash rube while being pampered by a team of professional hangers-on. Marilyn who knows exactly what she’s got, but pretends not to want it or care. She was a cypher, and Williams does an incredible job of playing all of her messiness with wide-eyed honesty — knowing when to turn it on and when not to bother. We may not learn much about what made Marilyn tick, but we learn to appreciate that she was both much more and much less than the icon she became.

Williams’ effortless, exhilarating performance is captivating — I dare you to not find yourself physically pulled to the screen every time she is in the spotlight, as though Williams has tied strings to all the sternums in the audience. Because, like the real Marilyn, she basically has. Though the film doesn’t reveal much about what went on in Monroe’s head, it makes palpably real the effect that she had on everyone around her — its an inner light that Williams (who is generally cast in considerably less glamorous roles) somehow turns on like a thousand-watt bulb. Every moment she is on screen it is impossible to look at anything else; heck, if I fell in love with her, I’d argue that almost anyone would.

Judi Dench

Enhancing the fun considerably is Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, an actual grande dame of British theatre here portrayed as a gracious, nurturing, and wise collaborator who knows that sometimes you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Her deft way of handling what thespians of more ego would never have put up with is wonderfully inspiring.

In the end, though, this story is not the story of the lovely, troubled, and ethereal Monroe (as much as many may want it to be) — it’s the story of Colin, who finds himself torn between his schoolboy crush on his film’s star and his duty to his production. Redmayne’s gawky good looks are used to their greatest advantage here — as a result Colin comes across as a likable-but-naive man trying to navigate the treacherously political waters of show business. I’ve seen Redmayne in several films and while he’s always been a solid performer, this is the first time I can say I’ve enjoyed his work outright.

My Week With Marilyn is nothing groundbreaking or particularly robust, dramatically. At times it’s a bit goofy and cliched. But considering that it’s about how a woman with no conscious control over her own talents and celebrity navigated a short but brilliant career, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find that some of the details are thrown into relief opposite her blinding spotlight. Like Monroe herself, the film’s greatest trick is in seducing you into thinking that there’s more to it than there really is. And sometimes it’s just best to let yourself be seduced.

This is the first film I’ve seen this year that sent me stumbling out of the screening room, hammered on the rapturous power of the movies to engage, inspire and delight – thanks almost entirely to Michelle Williams’ star-making turn, I wanted to run out and sing its praises to anyone who would listen. I hope that others find themselves falling as deeply in love with Marilyn as I have.

My Week with Marilyn opens in the U.S. on November 23.

 
 

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