By Caryn James | James on Screens November 22, 2011 at 10:15AM
My Week With Marilyn seems like a terrible idea: one more take on the poor-little Marilyn story, this time with fabulous lookalike Michelle Williams. But this sharp little film is much more than that. The story of one week in 1956, when Monroe and Laurence Olivier were making The Prince and The Showgirl in London, creates an evocative portrait of that cultural moment, with layers of complexity.
We see the fraught world of celebrity and hero-worship, the machinery of movie pr, and Olivier’s old-school theatrical acting giving way to the Method-gone-mad of Monroe. In a few deft scenes we observe the tragic flaws in Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller. Director Simon Curtis’ previous credits include Cranford for Masterpiece, which is more relevant than it appears; like that precise examination of 19th-century village life, My Week With Marilyn is an entertaining work of social observation.
Williams is a wonder at embodying Monroe, but (maketing aside) this isn’t really Marilyn’s story. It’s Colin Clark’s - the film is, after all, based on the real Clark’s memoir - played with great innocent charm by Eddie Redmayne. Eager to learn about the movie business, Colin is a film set gopher – an upper-class young gentleman but a gopher nonetheless – who becomes Monroe’s sympathetic ear and Platonic friend for a week. Of course he falls in love with her, but this is not the story of a one-week stand..
We first see Colin at the movies, raptly watching Monroe on screen; we’re actually watching Williams, in convincing song-and-dance-and-wiggle Monroe choreography. As viewers we are immediately put in Colin’s position, the star-worshipper who sees a movie idol enter real life.
The Marilyn who arrives in London is a major star, playing her sexiness to the max, accompanied by her intellectual, playwright husband. Dougray Scott is fantastic as Miller, capturing in his stiff tone and posture the arrogance of a hunter who has captured a prize. Olivier’s attitude is no better. Kenneth Branagh has some delicious, sputtering moments as the middle-aged Olivier, who wants to believe he’s still irresistible to women. He is less crushed by Marilyn’s indifference to him sexually than by his inability to get a professional moment out of her while filming.
Young Colin, who wants nothing but to adore her, is her ideal comforter. Redmayne and Williams have lovely scenes together, as their off-balance relationship grows. He begins to see her as a woman he loves and needs to protect; well, didn’t they all? But his attachment has genuine tenderness. Williams shows a Marilyn totally capable of manipulation, but also hungry for selfless affection like Colin’s.
The on-set scenes filming the creaky Prince and the Showgirl – that title says everything about the Olivier-Monroe imbalance – are just as vivid. Zoe Wanamaker plays Paula Strasberg, the Method teacher always at Monroe’s elbow. Wanamaker and screenwriter Adrian Hodges give that old story new life as Strasberg constantly reassures Marilyn that she’s an artist, a strategy that paralyses her.
Judi Dench plays the actress Sybil Thorndike, who is kinder to Marilyn than the impatient, self-important Olivier, and Dominic Cooper plays photographer Milton Greene, one of Monroe’s greedy business handlers. Only Julia Ormond is badly miscast as Vivien Leigh, then Olivier’s wife, and 43 years old. Even at her worst and most emotionally troubled, Leigh was never as lined and frumpy as this version makes her seem.
Some of the best scenes are between Marilyn and her husband, including an argument after she finds a notebook in which Miller has written a Marilyn-based character. We instantly see how wounded and used she feels, how callously he tries to evade her accusation that he’s exploiting her. This is the film’s freshest take on her personal life, and I wish there were more scenes like it. Otherwise the film adds little that’s new about her problems: the longing for the father she never had, the deep insecurity and need to be taken seriously. But in its shrewd observation of her world, this Marilyn is much smarter than it seems.