These days, you can scarcely hit a Cineplex without tripping over at least one biopic, a phenomenon I chalk up to the same one that makes reality TV so proliferate: people tend to thrill over the idea that
anything really happened, like, ever. But as thrilling as some human lives may be conceptually, rarely do any produce a satisfying narrative arc.
As a species, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over until we fade out-- more the stuff of early Warhol installations or daytime soaps than a two-hour feature. Most biopics are either factually sound and dramatically dull (Sylvia, Ray), or historically inaccurate (Walk the Line). The best ones limit themselves to a very specific theme or period in a person’s life (Capote, Frost/Nixon). So structurally at least, My Week With Marilyn, based on memoirist Colin Clark’s short-lived dalliance with Marilyn Monroe during the 1956 filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, seems ahead of the game.
First, the million-dollar question: how well does Michelle Williams do Monroe? For there may be nothing ballsier than playing the legendary actress—and “ballsy” is the operative term, as everyone who attempts to conjure her quintessential femininity always seems a drag queen in comparison, be they biologically female or male. Given that, Williams ain’t half bad. There may be a stridence that defines her, a wounded gravity, that exists in contrapunto to the gentle fun Marilyn always radiated on screen; her features may seem hard, her eyes hooded, in contrast to Marilyn’s delicious, eternal softness (even her nose was a sweet little blob); but the voice, breathy and yet precise, is
pitch-perfect. And that palpable need for an intimacy she also fears, for a relief from a loneliness that at core seems inescapable, is exactly right.
But a character sketch, no matter how well done, does not a movie make, and ultimately this film doesn’t explore its terrain enough. Rumors of strife on the British The Prince and Showgirl set have outlived general interest in the film itself, which is at best a trifle. (Only Marilyn’s performance is remotely palatable in retrospect.) By all accounts, Prince’s director and costar Sir Lawrence Olivier (played here by Kenneth Branagh) found Monroe’s pill-popping, entourage, erratic work ethic, and method acting preparation intolerable, while she found him a cold fish bordering on cruel. The results were delays, tears, arguments, and booze, lots of booze—all of which exist in copious amounts here. Alas, little else does.
During this shoot, Marilyn is newly married to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and the combination of his and Olivier’s disdain for her proves too much to bear—which only increases her reliance on such crutches as valium, acting coach Paula Strasburg (a wonderfully, appallingly vampiric Zoë Wanamaker) and, apparently, Clark (Eddie Redmayne) himself, who’s not much of a narrator as narrators go. In a very early scene we watch him watch her up on a movie theater screen (Williams shimmies a fantastic “Fever”), and that sets the prevailing, surprisingly unexamined tone. A 23-year-old third assistant director (read: lackey), he may be looking to defy his hyper-aristocratic family by, god forbid, launching a career but he hasn’t shed their inability to recognize the full humanity of Everyone Else despite his superficial congeniality. Though the film is ostensibly about the love he broached with the actress, it never transcends his lack of motivation to look behind the Marilyn curtain no matter how up and close and personal he ever got. (For the record, we never know just how close the two ever got, though we’re subjected to a monotonous number of their tender, unhungry kisses.) Instead, it bumps along in a series of oddly unrelated, too-expertly staged scenes, mostly featuring her thrashing about unhappily while British people stare bleakly into the bottom of their drinks.
That Marilyn was fragile and lonely is nothing new. That she was a massive star whose seemingly natural appeal rested squarely on a self-construction is nothing new. (When suddenly flocked by a throng of admirers, she breathes to Clark, “Shall I be her?”). That the making of the Prince and the Showgirl marks a crossroads in film, in which an old-guard Olivier was struggling to resurrect his cinematic relevance (to no avail) while movie-star Marilyn was struggling to prove her bona-fide acting chops (also to no avail) is not only nothing new but inadequately explored.
So this is a trifle of a film about a trifle of a film. But trifles can be appealing, especially English trifles, and this one is no exception. Taking its visual cues from Marilyn herself, it boasts a lovely, bleached-out aesthetic punched up by the same jewel tones she often wore. During one especially striking scene, she and Clark romp through a countryside awash in sunlight and green and a body of
sparkling water that provides the exact sort of mirror that she always offered others. In her gorgeous receptivity, you always could feel fully alive, connected somehow, no matter how isolated she herself
seemed to be. It’s a reverie, that kind of effect, and it’s pleasing while it lasts. Just like this film.
Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.