If you’re expecting My Week with Marilyn, director Simon Curtis’ earnest drama, to be an eye-opening portrait of one of the 20th century’s most enduring pop cultural icons, then you’ll be setting up yourself for disappointment. Instead, Curtis’ film, which exhibits the directional flair of a glorified television movie-of-the-week, is a breezy coming-age drama in the vein of the Peter O’Toole-led comedy My Favorite Year and Richard Linklator’s underrated Me and Orson Welles. Like those films, Marilyn focuses on a larger-than-life figure as seen through the eyes of an idealistic buck. And just like those two movies, it’s a film invigorated by splendid performances– in particular that of Michelle Williams who will almost certainly find herself in contention for awards for her intoxicating work.
The year is 1956 and Marilyn Monroe (Williams) is the most famous woman on Earth. She may be a superstar loved by millions around the world but what she desires is to be taken seriously as an actress. On the other end, we have Sir Lawrence Olivier (Branagh) who is widely regarded as the greatest classically-trained actor of the 20th century. Unlike Monroe, Olivier doesn’t need the respect of his peers – no, what he wants is to be loved as a movie star. When Marilyn travels to England with her then husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) to star in Olivier’s latest film, a frothy comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, both hope to fulfill their long-standing ambitions… and then some.
Based on the memoir The Prince, the Showgirl and Me by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), then a young and ambitious third assistant director on Olivier’s film, My Week with Marilyn chronicles the making of this comedy, Olivier’s frustrations with Marilyn’s gross unprofessionalism, her insecurities, and the media blitzkrieg that accompanied her wherever she went. Moreover, it details Clark’s friendship with Marilyn, his infatuation with her, and how he came to understand her in ways no one else would during his titular week touring the country with her.
If there’s only one reason to see My Week with Marilyn, it’s for Williams’ miraculous performance as Monroe. Williams, who is shaping up to become the Kate Winslet of her generation, has been on an extraordinary streak as of late (Wendy and Lucy, Blue Valentine, Meek’s Cutoff) and her work here continues that upward flow. She may not be as gorgeous as Marilyn or have Marilyn’s hour-glass figure but from the moment you set eyes on her, Williams draws you in to the point where you believe you’re watching the real Marilyn.
As Marilyn, Williams doesn’t just mimic the icon, she inhabits her. From her breathy voice to her effortless ability to command the attention of the room, Williams has it all down pat. But what stands out is how she separates Marilyn into two diverse personalities – the icon the world knew, and the insecure girl behind the façade. Williams embodies Norma Jean’s child-like vulnerability, insecurity, loneliness, confusion and depression without uttering a word. All she has to do is give us a smile and it’s all out there for us to soak in. By the film’s end, all I wanted to do was reach out and hug the girl.
Giving Williams a run for her money is Kenneth Branagh whose rip-roaring portrayal of his mentor, the egoistic and classically-trainer Olivier, is equally absorbing. Scenes where Branagh displays Olivier’s growing frustration and anger at Marilyn and her acting coach are akin to Wile E. Coyote’s failures to catch up with the Road Runner (yes, I did make this analogy, beep beep). They make up some of the film’s funniest moments (his delivery of the F-bomb had me in stitches) and I wish there were more of him in the picture instead of the drab Colin Clark character which is one of the film’s glaring problems.
Though Redmayne is fine as Clark, it’s screenwriter Adrian Hodges’ emphasis on this character and his romantic feelings towards Marilyn that feel disingenuous. I get that he’s the narrator and the one whose story is the basis of the memoir but when you have such larger-than-life characters like Marilyn Monroe and Lawrence Olivier occupying the background it’s hard to stay focused on the foreground. No one cares about this privileged little kid who got a fast pass into the industry thanks to his wealthy parents, we want to know more about why Marilyn became the way she was. It’s this aspect of the film, coupled with director Simon Curtis’ rather unremarkable direction of the picture that prevents it from being anything special.
Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn is a charming coming-of-age drama disguised as a biopic. Though it lacks the flair and weight of recent biopics like The King’s Speech and Milk, Michelle Williams’ touching performance as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh’s equally splendid turn as Lawrence Olivier keep it from sinking into the tub of mediocrity.