My Beef with 'Marilyn'

My Week with Marilyn ★★★
(UK/USA, 99 min.)
Dir. Simon Curtis; Writ. Adrian Hodges.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Emma Watson.
“When Marilyn gets it right, you can’t take your eyes away,” says Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) upon watching a flawless take. One gets the same impression when watching “Marilyn” as performed by Michelle Williams. She’s truly flawless as the iconic blonde: sexy, sultry, and equal turns fragile and tragic. Williams gets it so right as Marilyn Monroe that one can only regard My Week with Marilyn with awe when Williams graces the screen. The problem, though, is that as much as one wants to let Marilyn work her magic, the film frequently cuts away, casting the drama on the plight of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Colin is by no means a dull character, nor is Redmayne a poor actor, but Colin is simply no match for the incomparable allure of Marilyn Monroe. (Really, who had heard of him prior to the film?) Since the film favours Colin, rather than the far more dramatic Marilyn and the impeccable Williams, My Week with Marilyn ultimately plays like the rough cut of a five-star movie.

The film gives Colin’s p.o.v. primarily because the film is based upon Colin’s memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me. (Seems logical, eh?) Colin’s book chronicles his first job in the movie business, which just happened to be the role of Third Assistant Director to Laurence Olivier on the set of his 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl (shot in the film under its working title The Sleeping Prince). During said shoot, Colin allegedly worked closely with Marilyn Monroe and naturally fell in love with the blonde bombshell.
As played by Michelle Williams, who couldn’t fall in love with Marilyn? Williams looks enough like the icon to suffice, especially from the bust up. At the very least, Williams looks more like Marilyn Monroe than Julia Ormond does a haggard Vivian Leigh. Williams more resembles Monroe through her true gifts as an actress:  she walks the walk of the star’s slinky strut, and she talks the talk, deftly changing between the high-pitched bubbliness of onscreen Marilyn and the deeper, sadder voice Marilyn assumed when the cameras stopped rolling. Most successfully, though, Williams brings out the fragility of her character, using Marilyn’s beautiful blue eyes to show her vulnerability and destructive self-doubts. If only the film were as good as she is.

The first half of the film is especially messy and sluggish. As Colin and Marilyn arrive on set, and principle photography begins on The Sleeping Prince, Hodges’ script opts for many a blunt scene in which supporting players muse on what it must be like to be the most famous woman in the world. We don’t really need all this expository dialogue – if Curtis simply cut to Williams often enough, the film would be fair more clear and concise on the hell that came with Marilyn’s fame. The film also heaps on characters from Marilyn’s posse - while they bring out the pressures Marilyn faced in trying to uphold the perception others’ had of her, the members of her entourage are characters so grating and blunt they belong in My Movie of the Week with Marilyn.

There are, however, two fine actors to complement Williams and give Monroe a treatment worthy of her tale. Judi Dench offers a fine turn as Dame Sybil Thorndike, the only sympathetic party to Marilyn before Colin comes along. Dench is in top form as the British actress, but she exits the film abruptly, becoming another victim of the awkward editing job. Kenneth Branagh fares exceptionally well as Laurence Olivier. Branagh offers some excellent monologues that draw out the demons of Marilyn’s persona, as well as demonstrate the complexity of Olivier as a character, jealous of Marilyn’s ability to be both an actor and a star. It’s truly a treat to see the great Shakespearean filmmaker played by his contemporary equivalent.

By focusing solely on this isolated film shoot, the film conveys Monroe’s tormented psyche and insecurities. Through Williams, My Week with Marilyn is fair portrait of the famed star. Marilyn is a Hollywood icon by day, tragic mess by night; however, the film falters in that it fears deep analysis of its subject, instead opting to hammer in how Marilyn was seen and used by others. The film seems content to give an outsider’s view of Marilyn’s cute little schoolgirl routine as she shakes her booty and pouts for the camera. It gives some insight into the strain of celebrity, and it shows how Marilyn was a victim of great insecurity, which, as the film touches upon slightly, was a product of her troubled childhood. My Week with Marilyn wholly succeeds in conveying that there were two Marilyns: the Marilyn played by Norma Jean and the “Marilyn” played by Marilyn for the camera, with the latter being the persona presumed to be the real thing. The film, however, glosses over Marilyn’s strengths. Sure, the film offers an intercut that shows Ulysses on her bedside table and the dialogue suggests that she knew her Shakespeare, but besides that, My Week with Marilyn makes little effort to separate the sex kitten from the woman. Perhaps these two personas were, as Agent Cooper might say, “complimentary verses of the same song,” but as sung by My Week with Marilyn, this eulogy is a little off key. 

My Week with Marilyn opens in Ottawa at the AMC Kanata Nov. 25