Williams Shines in 'My Week With Marilyn'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Brought to you by the Weinstein Company, the same people behind the lauded, if not necessarily lively, "The King's Speech," "My Week With Marilyn" is adapted from the memoirs of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark, in his youth, hustled his way into a job with Sir Laurence Olivier's production company just as Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) was preparing to direct "The Prince and the Showgirl," starring Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) as his leading lady. Clark had a view from the inside as Olivier and Monroe clashed and collaborated, raged and retreated, their styles and personalities clashing. And when Marilyn needed a friend -- and, perhaps, the burst of energy that comes from adoration viewed through new eyes -- she made Colin her confidant.
Directed by Simon Curtis, a TV director making the jump to the big screen with a film that will play far better on TV than in the theater, "My Week With Marilyn" features one great performance and one amusing one. Williams, as Monroe, isn't engaged in mere mimicry of Monroe's public persona and performances, but also trying to get at something deeper, and something richer, behind the icon. Branagh's Olivier is more a vocal performance than a physical one, clipped consonants and aspirated "S" sounds, the kind of ham who quotes "Othello" when he's upset. (Branagh's performance, unlike Williams', is more caricature than character, but it's a fun caricature.)
Written by Adrian Hodges from Clark's book, the film is a great demonstration of how a short time scale -- instead of the womb-to-tomb approach of a biopic like "Ray" or "J. Edgar" -- can often make for a far better film. You don't need to know about Monroe's other marriages to see how she clings to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott); you don't need to know about her career insecurities to see how she leans on her "Method" acting instructor, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). And when she guiltlessly, guilelessly and reflexively seduces Colin, you know everything you need to about how, for some people, the longtime understanding of a friend is less nourishing than the freshly minted adoration of a could-be lover.
Redmayne, who's previously displayed a capacity for creepiness in indies like "Hick" and "Savage Grace," is also remarkably fine here, conniving his way into a job, charming Emma Watson's wardrobe girl, rebuffing producers and handlers played by Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper, getting embroiled in union squabbles over whether he, or a union stagehand, can move a chair four inches. He's an observer, but an engaged and engaging one, and we want to see him do well.
If "My Week With Marilyn" disappoints in any regard, it's in its script, which feels some urgent need to state the obvious like a skip in a record. Cooper cautions Branagh, "Accept Marilyn as she is; force her, and she'll drive you crazy." When the takes aren't going well, Branagh explodes at Williams, "Will you just try to be sexy; isn't that what you do?" Jones admonishes Redmayne, "I wouldn't buy that 'little girl lost' act; Marilyn knows exactly what she's doing." The film goes to great pains to recreate the look of "The Prince and the Showgirl" -- imitating the cinematography of that film, by legend Jack Cardiff, to a T -- but it can't avoid the flurry of on-the-nose lines and reactions that hamper it.
But Williams, as Monroe, still shines. You see her dreamy and dazed and drunk in sunlight, stretching like some lazy cat and oozing sexuality; you also see her passive-aggressively sabotage the film she's supposed to be in. Williams' Monroe can be both cluelessly confused and clumsy, but also coldly and clearly calculating. Williams also portrays Monroe as far more than her "platinum blonde with pneumatic curves" iconic image, complete with a sense of humor: As she's being mobbed by a crowd, she's told to see the sights. She smiles: "I am the sights."
Monroe would be dead within five years of the release of "The Prince and the Showgirl," and Williams foreshadows that inevitable end without coughing like Camille. You can sense a fragile hold on strong character and vice-versa. It is hard to catch the shadows in the life of someone we know only when seen in the strong glare of the camera's lights, or the paparazzi's flashbulbs, but "My Week With Marilyn" gives that task a game and rousing try. It's too bad that Williams didn't have a script or director that would have given the film a better chance of attaining greatness.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.