NYFF 2011: ‘My Week with Marilyn’ boasts an unforgettable Michelle Williams performance

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My Week with Marilyn

Written by Adrian Hodges

Directed by Simon Curits

2011, USA

My Week with Marilyn showcases a pantheon of amazing British talents and gives them the chance to do what they do best: awe an audience, but the performance everyone will be talking about belongs to Michelle Williams. Williams inhabits Monroe in such a way she not only brilliantly resurrects a time-honored Hollywood icon but she recalls an entire era of filmmaking that defined glamour and style for the generations to follow.

The week in question concerns a stretch of time Marilyn Monroe spends in England with Colin Clark, who works as a third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl.  Colin is completely new to show business, so he is already elated at the prospect of working on a movie.  But when Marilyn arrives on the scene, despite multiple warnings against it, Colin completely loses his head and his heart to her. When Marilyn’s husband, famous playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), returns to the States for a week, the sensitive actress takes it as a slight and solicits the company of doting Colin to lift her spirits. Colin, as you might imagine, is only too happy to oblige.

The title My Week with Marilyn contains a certain promise of insight and wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want to while away time with a movie star? And thanks to the presence of a high caliber cast the curious moviegoer can walk away from this film content with the feeling of having spent time with the greats. Kenneth Branagh is a natural choice to fill in for Sir Laurence Olivier. Both are British actors renowned for their work on stage and screen. Both have directed themselves and others in film projects and therefore understand the specific challenges of work in front of and behind the camera. Both have a Shakespearean flare in their acting styles, so when we hear Olivier quoting from The Tempest, the moment aligns appropriately with Branagh’s carefully calculated portrayal, especially given the blustery temperament with which he plays the late actor. And once again Dame Judi Dench shows she can do a lot with a little screen time. Her small role as Dame Sybil Thorndike infuses every scene she steals with an elegant sweetness as she hands out presents to the underlings and time after time diffuses the tension on set with her delightful humor and grace.

Of course, one performance counts for more than the others, and in that respect, Michelle Williams provides the film with a portrait as unforgettable as the subject herself. She deftly captures the sex symbol’s sultry mannerisms with the accuracy of a keen and studied observer, but her recreation of the popular actress delves much deeper than the outward manifestations of her celebrity persona.  Williams unearths an aching insecurity in Monroe and uses it to explain a myriad of erratic behavior from her lack of professionalism to her overindulgence of pills and alcohol. While the film discusses a tumultuous family history most everybody is already aware of, Williams convincingly enacts the resultant vulnerability that stems from a sequence of abandonment starting with Marilyn’s father and extending to her current spouse.  But obviously the film also makes plenty of room for the airy girlishness that made Monroe such fun to watch in the first place.

At first, the pairing of a lowly, inexperienced crew member and an illustrious Hollywood actress might look unusual, but it need not tax the imagination too much when put in the light of her other dysfunctional relationships. Her business partner, Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), browbeats her. Her acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) coddles and condescends to her. Oliver always chides her for her tardiness and acting technique. Even hubby Arthur has grown weary of her neediness. It is no wonder that she seeks out a relationship she can actually control.  Hence her attraction to Colin makes perfect sense.  At one point Marilyn asks him rather pointedly whose side he’s on. When he replies her side, that’s precisely the answer she wants to hear. Marilyn, desperate for an ally in a country and culture she finds all too strange, encourages Colin’s puppy love and in fact seeks solace in his adoration as she copes with her director’s ire, the oppressively high expectations of her handlers, and the abandonment of her newly acquired husband. Colin understandably has a more idealistic take of his and Marilyn’s dynamic.  While he takes the actress on tours of Eton College and Windsor Castle, Marilyn takes him skinny dipping. So he can be forgiven if his version of events skews more towards the romantic.

Colin makes an excellent escort, not only for Marilyn, but also for us viewers as we traverse the sometimes mystifying realm of moviemakers and film stars. He is the perfect combination of unassuming and plucky, so he embodies a kind of everyman for this titillating vicarious adventure. Having him at the forefront creates the suggestion that if such a remarkable week can happen to Colin, it could happen to just about anybody. Unfortunately, the script has him pander to the audience too often with superfluous voice over, and the same humble nature that makes him the perfect proxy for the average viewer also makes his character pale slightly in comparison to the terrific cast around him, in spite of a very valiant portrayal by Eddie Redmayne.

The film does fall short, however, as it handles the darker elements of the story. It transitions awkwardly between its comedic moments and scenes of pure pathos. The script provides laughs more adeptly than it can pity for its troubled characters. As heart wrenching as Marilyn seems when doped up on pills to calm her fragile nerves or frantically wrestling to get her lines right, her tragic side never quite dampens the spirits as well as she lifts them when she turns on her charms. Also when Colin experiences his inevitable heartbreak, he acts very “stiff upper lip” about it; that and the predictability of it all really prevents any sympathetic resonance to his plight.

My Week with Marilyn is not a celebrity exposé, nor can it truly be called a character study. It is a true account of a fantasy realized during an almost impossible week but made credible by wonderful masters of their craft. Its triumphs far exceed any shortcomings. The film humanizes Marilyn if not totally demystifying her. There’s nothing new here to be learned per se, but we can walk away from the theater, like Colin after his skinny dipping escapade, with the giddy sensation that we’ve seen more of Marilyn than ever before.

Kenneth Broadway


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