Ten Things My Week With Marilyn assumes we don’t already know about Marilyn Monroe:
- Marilyn took pills, pills and more pills! Uppers, downers and inbetweeners, swilled together with top shelf liquor.
- “Marilyn” was actually a fictional persona constructed to camouflage vulnerable, frail Norma Jean Baker.
- Marilyn “devoured” men with her tempestuous allure.
- Marilyn was broken inside because she grew up with a lunatic mother and no father.
- Marilyn slept around.
- Marilyn just wanted “to be loved like a regular girl.”
- Marilyn could wrap the press around her little finger by spouting saucy one-liners.
- Marilyn couldn’t be saved, and portents of her eventual doom manifested all around her.
- Marilyn was addicted to stardom as well as booze.
- Er, did you know she was self-destructive?
All anyone wants to know about My Week With Marilyn is what Michelle Williams is like in it. Fortunately she is very, very good, coming closer than any actress has to radiating Marilyn Monroe’s lush, wistful appeal— Williams can telegraph lonely vulnerability with the flick of an eyelid. Based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, the film chronicles his experience as a young 3rd assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, a turgid 1957 romantic comedy directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, who, hoping to revitalize his sagging movie star image, cast Monroe to ensure ample publicity.
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From the jazzy opening, when Williams as Monroe is revealed in a spotlight singing “When Love Goes Wrong,” My Week With Marilyn promises to be a melodrama-frosted guilty pleasure full of spangled costumes and magic hour setpieces. But the film turns inexplicably dull halfway through, suffocating under the weight of hoary Monroe clichés. A mediocre script and an uneven tone persistently undermine Williams’s excellent characterization— often when Williams is given dramatic scenes that promise to delve into darker emotional territory, Kenneth Branagh as Olivier tromps in, chomping on the scenery and burbling Shakespeare, edging the film into high farce.
Wallowing in the most obvious elements of the Monroe myth, this film isn’t afraid of corn, with characters saying things like, “When Marilyn gets it right, you just don’t want to look at anyone else, ” and “I wouldn’t buy the little-girl-lost act if I were you.” Moments of heavy-handed innuendo land with a thud, as when Monroe peers into a dollhouse complete with nuclear doll family and says, “All little girls should be told how pretty they are…and have a mother who loves them.”
Colin (played by a moony Eddie Redmayne) is a suspiciously omnipresent young man who earns a disproportionate amount of praise and attention from his superiors, often just for standing around. He soon becomes involved with Marilyn, and producers and directors warn him that Marilyn will break his heart; the sheer amount of important people who care about the emotional development of a 3rd AD, while ignoring Monroe’s feelings entirely, often make Colin’s story seem like an exercise in wish fulfillment.
The majority of the film soft-pedals Monroe’s tantalizing voluptuousness. Williams, in the article accompanying her widely circulated Vogue photo spread, says she wore padding around her hips, because when she tried to gain weight for the role, “it went right to my face.” The padded hips often look lumpy and stiff, and the famously jiggly walk is hinted at rather than indulged in. But Williams flawlessly reenacts Monroe’s best scenes as showgirl Elsie Marina in The Prince and the Showgirl, aided by identical costumes and sets. In the most memorable moment of the original film, Monroe performs an impromptu dance routine with infectious delight in her fleet footed abilities; Williams mimics the number almost exactly, with flighty flourishes and coy smiles, inhabiting Monroe’s physicality with uncanny exactitude.
My Week With Marilyn may not have been such a disappointment if its creators hadn’t purported, in every shred of publicity, to pursue a more honest, inquisitive reading of Monroe’s character. First time director Simon Curtis said in a press conference, “We had tremendous respect for all the characters in the film,” and such an excess of respect prevents Monroe from growing into something unexpected. Her myth remains undisturbed: she’s still the dizzy, mesmerizing, opaque sexual martyr she has always been in our collective consciousness.
Anna Bak-Kvapil is a film critic, filmmaker and actor. She contributes to the website Not Coming to a Theater Near You.