Nearly fifty years after her death, the jury is still out on the quality of Marilyn Monroe’s acting ability. This struggle to see the talent for the celebrity is just as common a dilemma in today’s paparazzi-infested environment—just ask George Clooney, Jennifer Anniston and the like. The question of which is larger, Monroe’s talent or her celebrity, is in play throughout My Week With Marilyn, an adaptation of Colin Clark’s memoir The Prince, the Showgirl and Me. (Clark was a production hand on the set of her 1957 film, The Prince and the Showgirl.)
Though her celebrity doesn’t approach that of the icon she portrays, there’s also no doubt as to the caliber of actress Michelle Williams’ talent. In My Week With Marilyn, Williams gives an ethereal, award-worthy performance as Monroe.
The movie kicks off with an opening number—a rendition of Monroe’s performance of “Heat Wave” from Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business. It doesn’t take long to fall head over heels for Williams, a seduction that Monroe undoubtedly carried with her everywhere she went. From this moment on, the movie plays as a game of anticipation, where we eagerly await her next appearance onscreen, the next utterance of her classic giggle. A line about Monroe in the film is equally applicable to Williams’ performance: “When Marilyn gets it right, you just don’t want to look at anyone else.”
The boyish Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) narrates My Week With Marilyn as an eager 23 year old, hungry for cinema, who begs for a job at the feet of Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Essentially an intern, Clark runs errands on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, making frequent stops to flirt with the wardrobe girl, Lucy, played by a forgettable Emma Watson. It doesn’t take long for Clark to forget about poor little Lucy and become predictably struck and engulfed by the presence of the larger-than-life Monroe upon her arrival to England shortly after having wed playwright, Arthur Miller. The film is energized as Williams descends the plane’s stairs, reenacting Monroe’s infamous arrival to England in 1956. From here on out, we watch Monroe’s struggle to remember lines and hit her marks, desperately attempting to find her place in the film’s production. In turn, we witness a commendable performance by Branagh as he displays Olivier’s impatience and outrage at her incapability as an actress.
During the second half of the film, based on Clark’s follow-up memoir, Williams not only captures Monroe’s illuminating essence, but her instability and unpredictability, as well. Clark shares his experience from the week of every young man’s wildest dreams—a romantic experience with the most famous woman in the world. Monroe seeks love in anyone who will provide it, begging to be believed in—two qualities she discovers in Clark. We pity the superstar as she is humanized as a stray—lost and seeking a warm home, being sedated during moans and outbursts. It makes it easy to understand why things went horribly south for the blonde bombshell just a few years later.
Lacking explosive drama or any real suspense, My Week With Marilyn plays more as a performance piece for Williams than a solid display of filmmaking. Although entertaining at times, and certainly informative as it sheds new light on another side of Marilyn, it is frightening to think what a disaster this movie would have been without Williams. Instead, thanks to Williams (and Branagh), the movie will be mentioned repeatedly in the best performance category come award season. Beyond that, My Week With Marilyn suggests that the best, most convincing character Monroe ever played was herself.
Director: Simon Curtis
Writers: Adrian Hodges, Colin Clark (books)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: Nov. 23, 2011