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My Week with Marilyn (2011)

November 24, 2011

written by: Adrian Hodges
produced by: David Parfitt and Harvey Weinstein
directed by: Simon Curtis
rating: R (for some mild language)
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: November 23, 2011 (limited)
Just about every actor that comes to mind has taken on a role at some point that is based on a real-life character. Go ahead, think of an actor – if they haven’t played a character that is based on a real person, then it just hasn’t happened yet. It seems to be an understandable and inevitable move along the path of an actor’s career. It could be a lesser known part like a teacher or an inventor, or it may be a reputable criminal or a political figure. Sometimes we’ll see an actor portray an iconic character, such as a leader of a nation or a sports figure, or, in the case of “My Week with Marilyn”, another actor. 
 Michelle Williams, one of the finest actors of her generation, plays one of the most popular actresses from the ’50s, one whose talent (and every step) always seemed to be scrutinized. Free of any showy monologues or camera mugging, Williams disappears into her latest role and the result is an intoxicating performance that (like the woman she plays) you simply can’t take your eyes off of. 
In 1956, a bright-eyed young Brit named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne, “Black Death”), enamored with the cinema, set out to get a job in the British film industry. He lands a job working for the film company of  lauded actor/director Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and sets out to impart a determined enthusiasm. Colin is given the job of a third assistant director (called a “third) and is immersed in the filmmaking process of “The Sleeping Prince”, a film in which Olivier is both directing and starring in. The crew is all aflutter as it anticipates the arrival of American starlet, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), who will star opposite Sir Lawrence in her very first visit to England.
She arrives with her entourage, which includes her recently-married husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and Marilyn’s personal Method acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker, resembling Edna Mode), and causes quite a commotion amongst Londoners. The public adores her, yet those involved in the film’s production are less than dazzled by the star’s presence. Sure, she’s breathtaking and undeniably exhilarating, but her chronic lateness and absences begin to take a toll on Olivier and crew. An already insecure Marilyn picks up on the tension, so when Miller returns to the States, a panicked Olivier assigns Colin to be her shadow (which includes a tour of Windsor Palace), in order to ensure she stays on schedule and that no harm befalls her.
Now, what heterosexual male wouldn’t want such a job? Like a tractor beam, Colin is pulled in to Marilyn’s allure. He immediately falls for the sex bomb’s vulnerability, as well as her need for flattery and reassurance. Is she stringing him along and enjoying every minute of it? Maybe, maybe not. Although, Colin’s week with the starlet provides a glimpse at a seemingly unknowable woman, it also reveals her more troubling side, far from her pop culture image.
Adapted for the screen by Adrian Hodges (BBC’s Primeval) from Colin Clark’s two memoirs, “My Week with Marilyn” serves as a time capsule in the careers of Olivier and Monroe. That means this is not a Marilyn Monroe picture, but rather one in which the actress is one of many characters. While Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe is the main draw here, and will likely be the main reason people will (and should) see Simon Curtis’ film, what’s most interesting is that this is far from your typical biopic.
In a refreshing turn, the film’s title frees the material from the standard biopic (such as the recent “J. Edgar”), where an individual’s life story is covered in a mere two hours. The formula for such a film has been seen over and over, so giving the audience only a week in the lives of two famous actors is a nice alternative. It also helps that not many viewers (myself included) will even know that Olivier and Monroe were in a movie (which would eventually be called “The Prince and the Showgirl”) together. It’s certainly not a movie they are known for, Olivier was coming off “Richard III” and Monroe would go on to do “Some Like It Hot.” Just as “The King’s Speech” only gave us a glimpse in the life of a historic figure, “My Week with Marilyn” conventional formula (no origin tale or dysfunctional family woes here) by allowing us a brief amount of time with these characters, instead of overwhelming us with an assortment of life benchmarks.
The most intriguing element of the story is indeed this moment of time in the careers of these two very different acting luminaries. Monroe was at the height of popularity and would soon become an even bigger star, whereas Olivier was trying something different, hoping to rejuvenate himself by doing work that would inevitably have more mainstream appeal. It’s not the best experience for either of them, but it certainly is entertaining for us.
It is an absolute joy to see Branagh play a role it seems he’s worked his whole life toward. With his Shakespearean experience and work as both an actor and a director, the parallel career path between him and Olivier is uncanny. He nails the part in every way: looks, mannerisms, vocal inflections, and body language. Watch Branagh’s response to wife Vivian Leigh’s (the always great, Julia Ormond) resentful verbal jabs and you’ll see a thespian put in his place.  Witness a scene in Olivier’s dressing room as he mentions why he decided to work with Monroe. He was under the impression that working with a young and vivacious actor would in turn help him feel young again, but it actually has an opposite effect, making him feel quite old. In such a short time, Branagh embodies the frustration and arrogance of the classical trained actor as he wrestles with trying to work alongside a fragile and irresponsible beauty.
Curtis thankfully avoids spending too much time on the Marilyn Monroe melodrama we’ve seen portrayed countless times. The addiction and depression are here, but a stronger, more palpable presence is Monroe’s crippling insecurity and doubt in her abilities. We see it in her eyes as she flubs a line or when she senses someone is talking about her as she walks on the set. She does have one supportive defender in actress Sybil Thorndike (a wonderful Judi Dench), who can often be seen defusing Olivier or offering words of faith-building encouragement to Monroe. Thorndike gets why Monroe is successful in front of the camera and sees a unschooled yet natural authenticity to her actions. Like a lost child who needs a hand to hold on to, Monroe readily accepts and appreciates any acts of kindness from Thorndike. 
Understandably, the success of the movie rides on Williams performance, and no worries – she knocks it out of the park.  It’s a difficult challenge pulling off the role of Marilyn Monroe, but Williams is a sight to behold as she provides both a familiar and unfamiliar Monroe. At no point is she anything less than engaging, as she navigates from a playful skinny dip to being unable to get out of bed. Even more impressive, Williams gives us three Monroes. There’s the Marilyn playing a showgirl in a movie, the needy and vulnerable young woman, and finally there’s the Marilyn who knows when to turn it all on for a crowd. Quite a feat to manage all three and do it well, but something on another level to do a simply amazing job with all of them. 
Watching Williams work here is the first time this year where I immediately felt like I was seeing an Oscar winner. On top of it all, wait till you see her sing and dance – seriously, just give her the golden guy.
In the role of Colin, Redmayne is our wide-eyed guide into this often hilarious environment of movie making. As an actor, Redmayne is serviceable, caught between two gears: gobsmacked and awkward. It’s understandable for the character, considering who he’s surrounded by and maybe even moreso for the actor, considering the presence of Branagh and Williams. It seems like out of all the actors, Redmayne is at the mercy of familiar character beats. We see a number of people warn Colin not to get too close to Monroe, including producer Milton H. Greene (a great Dominic Cooper), who had a brief thing with the actress. Redmayne is also given a side plot that sees Colin developing a friendship with a friendly wardrobe girl (an underused and recognizably mature, Emma Watson) that is the most predictable storyline in the film. 
“My Week with Marilyn” is that rare film I would gladly revisit, just to see Branagh and Monroe embody these famous figures. Curtis may have hit a few slow spots at times, but his cast more than compensates for any of the film’s weaknesses. My interest in the film started with my curiosity toward Williams. I wanted to see what she would do with the role, and now that I have, I can’t seem to get her out of my head. It’s hard to say if that’s due to Monroe or Williams, or one and the same. 

RATING: ****

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