47th Chicago Film Festival: ‘My Week with Marilyn’ a valiant effort, but not valiant enough

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My Week with Marilyn

Directed by Simon Curtis

Written by Adrian Hodges

USA, 2011

Marilyn Monroe is an American icon. To this day, there are very few people alive right now who don’t know who she is. The number of stories and situations that involve her seems to be never-ending, and in cases like that it’s probably better that a film focus in on a single event.

But perhaps that’s where this particular film goes wrong.

My Week with Marilyn tells the story of Colin Clark, a young man who dreams of working in the film industry. His first job is as an assistant to sir Laurence Olivier on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. While working on the film, he forms a bond with iconic superstar Marilyn Monroe. It’s a story that sounds like it should be packed to the brim, considering Monroe’s life. Unfortunately, in the end it all wears a little thin.

As the story begins, the focus is primarily on the making of the film, and all the turmoil encountered as Monroe tries to grasp the notion of acting and Olivier grows more and more impatient with her. It’s good groundwork to not only introduce the overall story, but introduce us to the Marilyn Monroe the cameras never captured, a troubled woman who, despite all the fame and love that surrounds her, is insecure and troubled. These are the moments where the film triumphs. But as the focus begins to shift away from that and more towards the possible romance between Monroe and Clark, momentum is lost.

It’s the presentation of the relationship that causes problems. What could seem real never comes off like anything more than a pipe dream in the mind of an ambitious young man. And maybe this was the point since in a way that’s exactly what it was, but was this the best way to approach it? So much time is spent breaking down the popular image of Monroe into something more real, that having her form a bond with someone who doesn’t seem able to look past what he sees on the screen comes off as disingenuous. Yes, he claims that he sees her as something more, but it’s never believable when he says it.

Though this could be attributed to Eddie Redmayne’s performance, one of the film’s weakest. He tries to do what he can, but in a world of intriguing characters, his is rather bland. It’s through him that we as an audience enter this world, but at times it comes off a little too much like an everyman (and considering his character comes from wealth, that’s not exactly what he is).  Luckily, the wonderful Kenneth Branagh is there to spice up many of his scenes, bringing an almost lovable smugness to his performance as Olivier. On hand are great supporting turns from talents like Judi Dench, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, and Julia Ormond.

But the true star of the film is Michelle Williams, who embodies Monroe magnificently. There are times where her look doesn’t quite match up to real-life, but duplicating someone like Monroe to perfection is an impossible thing. Her actual performance, however, makes up for any likeness issues. In one moment, she’s the woman we see in the pictures and films, and the next she’s completely different, oozing sadness and self-doubt. But there should be no self-doubt on Williams’s part; this performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. And if she were to win it would most certainly be well deserved, because she plays a large role in saving this film.

Like Monroe herself, this film could have been a thing of unbelievable beauty. Unfortunately there are too many weaknesses to propel it above average. Williams gives the performance of a lifetime, and she’s surrounded by a more-than-capable cast. But it just never reaches the heights that it could, and that’s the real tragedy. In the end, My Week with Marilyn is a valiant effort, but unfortunately it’s not valiant enough.

William Bitterman

The Chicago Film Festival runs from October 6th-20th. Visit the festival’s official home page.

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