Friday, December 16, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn is the story of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, what was supposed to be a frothy romance between (director/star) Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe (Michelle Williams) was already an internationally known star who had just married Arthur Miller and Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was regarded as a peerless actor but wasn't a movie star. We view Monroe and the making of Olivier's film through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who talks his way into an assistant director's job as a means of escaping what he perceives as a stultifying upper-crust life. How does one make a film about an icon? Director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges keep Monroe at a distance early on; we see Monroe through the eyes of Olivier and fellow cast members like Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), who fume at Monroe's tardiness even as they attempt to coddle her fragile ego for the sake of the film. In the early scenes Monroe is a puppet of her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), whose devotion to the "Method" is anathema to Olivier's exterior-based acting. Michelle Williams plays these scenes haltingly; Monroe's confidence was thin and her Olivier all but writes her off as just pretty face. Kenneth Branagh doesn't look much like Olivier to my eyes, but behind his clipped speech and mannerisms he gets at how Oliver was both fascinated by Monroe and what she represented and appalled by her lack of craft. Olivier gets a couple of speeches that are a little too on-the-nose regarding his feelings about Monroe, but Branagh (who appears to be having a great time) acquits himself well. As Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh, Julia Ormond is no-nonsense and angry; Leigh views Monroe as a threat and has no illusions about where her own stardom lies as compared to Marilyn's.

Marilyn Monroe was afraid of people leaving her, and her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is only onscreen for a few minutes but is written as a selfish monster who returns to America at the first opportunity. Once Colin becomes Marilyn's confidant we get to know Monroe better, and the character becomes another volume is Michelle Williams' study of fragile women. Marilyn is every bit as broken as the women Williams played in Brokeback Mountain or Blue Valentine, though she of course has it much worse since the people around her are doing everything but feeding off her. Williams gets at all that while still managing to be magnetically sexy and nailing how badly Monroe wanted to be normal. The most heartbreaking moment in My Week with Marilyn occurs when Colin's godfather (Derek Jacobi) gives Marilyn a tour of Windsor Castle, and a dollhouse suggests a life that it was already too late for Monroe to have. Of course there was only one way My Week with Marilyn could end, but even though we know Monroe's story there's still a sadness in seeing how close she comes to a genuine attachment. Most of the movies Marilyn Monroe made during her life aren't remembered; we think of the smile, the face, the voice. My Week with Marilyn has something to offer beyond Williams, but in the end its her performance that justifies the film's existence at all.

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