MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011)

The dirty secret of my life as a lay critic is that I see way, way more movies than I ever review. This is predominantly an issue of time—it takes 1-1/2–2 hours to watch a film, but at least twice as long—sometimes, for me, four times as long—to write about it. But this half-assed triaging is also based on my interest level: sometimes, what I have to say about a film just isn't worth my time or yours.

It is, of course, the movies that I really love or really hate that inspire me to write about them, and it's the passable in-betweeners that tend to fall through the cracks. If I walk out of a film saying, "Eh, it was okay," that's usually going to be the movie I never quite get around to writing about. (For the record, if you are wondering what I thought about Bridesmaids, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Fright Night, The Guard, Red State, The Skin I Live In, or The Muppets, to name just a few, you may quote me thusly: "Eh, it was okay.")

But now we are in awards season, and it seems wrong not to at least chime in on some of the contenders. I'm more or less foregoing sleep for these final weeks of the year, trying to fit all the films I need to see into my viewing schedule, but I won't be able to write about them all at my usual self-indulgent length. So, I'm making a conscious effort to write more reviews, but more quickly and concisely. We'll see if that's possible.

My Week with Marilyn is exactly the sort of film I would usually never get around to reviewing, since it's…fine. I actually enjoyed it much more than I was expecting, but it's a lightweight, unremarkable piece of filmmaking. The film is directed by Simon Curtis and written by Adrian Hodges: both have previously worked almost exclusively on the small screen, and it shows. My Week with Marilyn is competently made, but it has the feel of a superficial TV biopic blown up large. It is notable only for its lead performance from Michelle Williams, but that one performance is well worth the price of admission.

Based on a memoir by Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn chronicles Clark's experiences as third-assistant director (a glorified gopher) on the set of the 1957 romantic comedy The Prince and the Showgirl (originally titled The Sleeping Prince). Directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), the film-within-a-film united Olivier—widely considered the greatest living actor at the time—with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), then the hottest movie star in the world. Olivier, a classically trained thespian with no patience for so-called "method acting," came famously to clash with his unreliable, untrained American co-star, who was then in the thrall of the Strasberg method. (My Week with Marilyn portrays Paula Strasberg [Zoë Wanamaker] as a manipulating leech whose only goal is to make herself indispensable to her cash cow-star.)

I haven't seen The Prince and the Showgirl, but by all accounts it's pretty mediocre, memorable now only as the setting of this infamous clash of eras, styles, cultures, and talents. Olivier wanted to reinvigorate his career by working with the hot young star, and Monroe wanted to gain legitimacy and respect from working with the legendary actor. As Colin (Eddie Redmayne) tells Marilyn, "It's agony because he's a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you're a film star who wants to be a great actress. And this film won't help either of you."

Clark—a family friend of Vivien Leigh (Juliette Binoche)—becomes first the liaison between the increasingly angry Olivier and his uncooperative star, and then a confidante of Monroe. ("Who's side are you on?" she asks him, plaintively, and without hesitation he assures her he is on her side.) He falls hopelessly in love with her—as, apparently, most everyone who ever met her did—and becomes her friend, (mostly) chaste playmate, and security blanket during the shoot. (We will leave aside, for the sake of argument, the question of whether everything happened the way Clark says it did: some of it strikes me as unlikely—especially the candid conversations he had not just with Monroe but also with Olivier—but what the hell, it's a movie.)

Redmayne is a likable enough zero—appropriate to his unformed, everyman character. I don't see a lot of Olivier in Branagh's imitation, but his performance is nonetheless strong and very funny as the temperamental theatrical knight, simultaneously in awe of and repulsed by his flighty co-star. ("Marilyn, my darling, you are an angel and I kiss the hem of your garment," he tells her, after the entire cast has been waiting hours for her to arrive on set. "But why can't you get here on time for the love of fuck?") The ubiquitous Dame Judi Dench gets a rare opportunity to play nice as the saintly Dame Sybil Thorndike, the great stage actress who has nothing but compliments and support for the insecure movie star. "None of the rest of us knows how to act in front of a camera," she tells Marilyn. "You do." The film is bolstered by fine supporting performances from Toby Jones, Emma Watson, Derek Jacobi, and Dominic Cooper.

But My Week with Marilyn belongs to Michelle Williams, who simply shines. Williams nails Monroe's mannerisms and speech patterns, but more than that she brings the strange combination of confidence and self-doubt that seemed to make Marilyn such a heartbreaking, tragic figure. Even in her supposedly "unguarded" moments, she can't stop being the film star "Marilyn Monroe," but neither can she ever live up to her own legend. Williams—herself a supremely beautiful and (it must be said) far more talented film star—brings an extraordinarily authentic vulnerability and insecurity to this performance.

The only moments Williams fails to convince as Monroe are the moments when we see her "on film" within the film. (The camera loves Williams too, but it never loved anyone the way it loved Monroe: some things cannot be faked.) As the off-screen Marilyn, however, Williams is perfection, giving a performance that, wisely, neither attempts to reveal the "true" Marilyn Monroe nor tries to explain her mystique. She simply gives us an opportunity to spend, as the main character does, a week in Marilyn's company, and—as the main character does—to fall in love with her a little.

The film built around this performance is not quite worthy of it, but it's harmless enough, and refreshingly doesn't pretend it exists for any other reason. Ultimately plotless, it's more of an anecdote than a story: the main character is a starstruck cypher who doesn't really learn anything and, from our perspective, doesn't need to. We don't really learn anything about Marilyn that we didn't already know either, but that's okay too.

Personally, I can take or leave Marilyn Monroe, but I definitely came away from My Week with Marilyn a little more in love with Michelle Williams.

 

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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