Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn

Say whatever else you want about My Week with Marilyn, its success rests squarely on the shoulders of Michelle Williams as iconic screen legend Marilyn Monroe and she completely delivers on an impossible task. Williams is so good in fact, it’s easy to fall for Marilyn all over again through her.

Based on the memoir by Colin Clark, the (at that time) 3rd assistant director who escorted Marilyn about England during the filming of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, My Week with Marilyn is rooted in a difficult, transitional time for the actress. Near the height of her success and recently married to playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn had steeped herself in method acting in an effort to trade the fame and popular success which did not fulfill her for being taken seriously as an artist. At the same time, she was increasingly succumbing to the personal demons of insecurity and inadequacy that supposedly haunted her up until her untimely death some 5 years later. At this particularly volatile and delicate time, it’s not surprising that she clashed mightily with Olivier nor that emotionally she got the worst of it. The cultures were different, the acting styles were different, the personalities were different and the expectations and needs were different.

At a certain point in the film, Clark explains to Marilyn that Olivier is a great actor who wants to be a great movie star while she is a great movie star who wants to be a great actor. That’s really the whole story in a nutshell. Marilyn and Olivier were doomed to be at cross purposes in a vehicle that would not suit either of their ambitions. Each had achieved enormous success, but lacked what the other had and neither were in a position to get it. That they didn’t get along seems inevitable, but that the fragile Monroe was the one who paid the price is tragic.

Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shepard, Black Death) is very likable as Clark, though there’s something self-serving in Clark’s treatment of the story and even in the title My Week with Marilyn. It’s the Marilyn part of the story that is interesting and the Englishman who is our guide is entirely incidental. Nevertheless, Redmayne is an engaging screen presence. The bits of business with him getting his job and courting costume girl Emma Watson from the Harry Potter movies are needless distractions, but Redmayne makes the most of them and his portrayal as the star struck young man is effective.

Kenneth Branagh doesn’t look much like Olivier, but he nails the acting giant’s regal attitude and his clipped, rapier cadences. What’s more, he’s pretty clearly having fun with the part and it’s nice to see Branagh show his stuff on a big stage again. Since the story’s sympathies lie firmly with Monroe, Olivier naturally comes across as the villain of the piece. From Monroe’s perspective, he was and it’s important to remember that his personification is colored by that. Branagh in fact has been criticized for his portrayal of Olivier (a man in whose footsteps Branagh’s career has followed closely) as vain, cruel and egotistical, but that vanity actually humanizes him. This is a character struggling with demons of his own and Branagh makes him almost sympathetic. As a producer/director, he finds Marilyn’s professional behavior appalling, but as a man and an actor, he’s admiring and envious of her gifts. Branagh never loses sight of the man. He’s the bad guy but not necessarily a bad guy.

Judi Dench meanwhile is given a plum role as Sybil Thorndike, the venerable English actress who played Olivier’s character’s mother in The Prince and the Showgirl. Thorndike has defended Monroe in interviews and in the film, she’s instantly likable for being motherly and protective of her. This is the kind of stuff that Dench can do in her sleep, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.

As good as all of these actors are (Dougray Scott and Toby Jones are also fine as Arthur Miller and as Marilyn’s press agent Arthur Jacobs respectively), this is not their show. This movie belongs to Michelle Williams. It’s great to see the often austere and serious actress get to bubble and to be sexy and funny for a change. In the process, she captures Monroe’s appealing mix of innocence and carnality while also conveying her fragility and inner turmoil. Most importantly, she does it all while avoiding simple mimicry.

There are certain self conscious mannerisms Williams has to hit to get the part right – the breathy voice, the odd inflections, the walk – but she manages all of that while still humanizing Monroe. You’re never quite sure with Marilyn where the performance ends and the real woman begins (if at all), but Williams seamlessly conveys all the subtle differences in personality whether Monroe is in front of the camera, interacting with a colleague on the set, performing for her fans or sharing a less guarded moment with Clark when they’re alone. In all her incarnations, this creature that Williams inhabits feels of flesh and blood. You want to love her and protect her and probably sleep with her just like the real Marilyn. Some have suggested Williams is not voluptuous enough to be Monroe, but she’s close enough so that her wonderful performance shines through and takes over. If you want a look-alike, go to Madame Tussauds.

As history, My Week with Marilyn is somewhat suspect. It is unabashedly one-sided and Clark’s perspective is often too self-serving to be fully accepted as fact, but taken as a character study (if perhaps a biased one), it works beautifully. Volumes have been written about Monroe and she’s been portrayed many times before, but thanks to Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn feels like she’s really been brought back to life for the first time, if only for a delightful couple of hours.


3 Responses to “My Week with Marilyn (2011)”

  1. I guess all told I like this one a little less than you (3 1/2) but I am basically there. I agree that Williams delivers a remarkable performance, and that Branagh is engaging even if his aging looks don’t come close to resembling Olivier. I agree with the late disclaimer that historically the film is questionable, but then again it never attempted to replicate facts in the first place.

  2. I have to admit if the review doesn’t make it clear that I’m smitten with Williams in this film and it probably colors my opinion of the film overall.

  3. I can’t want to see this film about Olivier and Marilyn as i am a great fan of them both and Vivien Leigh. I do know the problems which came about on the prince and the showgirl film. I have read Laurence Olivier’s book confessions of an actor some years ago and he said he grew very annoyed with Marilyn she was always late and she would not take direction and kept walking off to ask her coach Paula Strasberg questions about what she should do etc. I think he felt underminded by Marilyn and her coach, problem was i think also Olivier didn’t really have much time for method acting and the Strasberg’s taught that type of acting skills especially Lee who ran the actor’s workshop at the time in New York i think it was. Vivien Leigh played the showgirl in the stage production with Olivier as the Duke. I think you can look at the story from Marilyn’s and Olivier’s position Marilyn was not a well woman lots of mental problems and Olivier had to content with Marilyn and Vivien Leigh’s illness Bipolar disorder in his private life but i will give Olivier his due he did say in his book that Marilyn played a good part in the Prince and the showgirl he felt she made him look wooden compaired with her. Marilyn died young unfortunately so did Vivien Leigh but i think they were both good performers.

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