The latest attempt to dig beneath the surface of Monroe is Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn, and like so many films about out-sized personalities, it takes the annoying tack of viewing her through the eyes of someone completely bland and uninteresting. This has been done with famous personalities ranging from Idi Amin to Tolstoy (I guess James McAvoy was too old for this role) and ends up being about the stick figure in the center.
In this case, we follow Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young fellow from an aristocratic family who loves the movies. He uses some connections to get a job as Third Assistant Director (basically a gofer) with Laurence Olivier’s production of The Prince and the Showgirl, which co-stars the legendary British actor with the American sensation, Monroe.
I was very much enchanted by the first third of this film, as it depicted what must be the excitement and glamor of behind the scenes at a movie, especially involving such big stars. Kenneth Branagh is Olivier, and while it could have been a simple impersonation (albeit a dead-on one), he gives Sir Larry a full character, tormented by his own insecurities. Julia Ormond plays his wife, Vivian Leigh, aware that she is too old for the part, and also aware that Olivier has cast Monroe with the hope of seducing her. That idea goes right out the window, though, when Monroe finally arrives, complete with an acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) and full of the Stanislavski method, which Olivier abhors. Thrown in with Monroe’s tardiness, and Olivier would rather strangle her then sleep with her.
Redmayne then becomes Monroe’s confidante, much like a comfort dog. When she asks him, during one of her stupors, whose side he’s on, he tells her “Yours.” It is here that the movie starts curdling, become more lugubrious and solipsistic. I don’t know Colin Clark and certainly wouldn’t call him a liar (the screenplay, by Adrian Hodges, is based on his diary), but the movie comes off more as bragging than anything else. “Did I ever tell you about when I skinny-dipped with Marilyn Monroe?”
The film does feature an outstanding performance by Michelle Williams as Monroe, but interestingly, it’s not a complete one. She is perfect as the offstage Monroe, the women with the breathy voice, the morbid fragility, almost no self-esteem, and one that needs the approval of powerful men (at this point in her life she was newly wed to Arthur Miller, sourly played by Dougray Scott). When Monroe finds Miller’s notebook, presumably of his early ideas for his play After the Fall, she realizes he’s writing about her, and is understandably destroyed. Williams also captures the innate intelligence and humor of Monroe, such as during a press conference and when she basks in the admiration of employees at Windsor Castle. She whispers to Redmayne, “Shall I be her?” and then does her shtick, suggesting that she is firmly aware of the differences between Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe.
However, I don’t think Williams captures the complete magic of Monroe. We are constantly told by others in the cast what a luminous film star she is (in one perceptive comment, Redmayne points out that Olivier is a classic actor who wants to be a film star, and that Monroe is a film star that wants to be a classic actress), but frankly I don’t think Williams captures Monroe’s singular appeal. I don’t chide her for it; it may be beyond any actress, like asking someone to play trumpet like Miles Davis. Nevertheless, one who has seen Monroe’s films can substitute one’s own recollections of Monroe’s screen persona to fill in the cracks.
Redmayne also has an impossible job. He has to be interesting enough to care about, but not too interesting to overshadow the stars around him. He ends up erring on the former, a cypher with a puppy-dog naivete about the film business and Monroe’s intentions toward him. To attempt to round him out, he’s given an aborted romance with wardrobe girl Emma Watson (finally released from Hogwarts). She’s understandably annoyed at being tossed aside for his ardor for Monroe, but let’s face it: When you have a chance, no matter how far-fetched, at Marilyn Monroe, you take it.
My grade for My Week With Marilyn (a bad title, by the way, since the filming takes much more than a week): B-.