It’s 1956, and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) has arrived in London to star alongside Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in The Prince and the Showgirl, a film Olivier also directs. As director, the Shakespearean thespian is exasperated by Monroe’s insistence upon method acting, in which the actress attempts to truly explore the mind of her character. In doing so, she holds up production by arriving late or not at all, and Olivier’s frustration with Monroe turns him into a seething harpy, pouting about his dressing room in light foundation and eyeliner. Indeed, the film’s funniest scenes involve Branagh’s blustering Olivier trying unsuccessfully to keep his cool, while Williams’ Monroe flubs her lines again and again.
He exclaims that trying to teach Monroe to act is “like trying to teach Urdu to a badger” — yet even Olivier is mesmerized when Monroe finally gets it right. Judi Dench’s Dame Sybil Thorndike, who plays the Queen Dowager in Olivier’s film, is charming as she offers her sympathy to the ruffled starlet. While those expecting some dramatic new insight into Marilyn Monroe’s private life will be disappointed, My Week With Marilyn will delight those looking for a mostly light-hearted, playful comedy. The film is worth the $10 just to bask in the comedic chemistry among Williams, Branagh, and Dench.
(To those unfamiliar with Olivier’s style, Branagh may seem to be overacting his part as the regent in The Prince and the Showgirl, but I assure you he is not. Watch two minutes — or as much as you can stand — of the 1957 film and you’ll see that Branagh is channeling every thin-lipped absurdity right from Olivier himself, who really does say “most amusing” over and over again in that ridiculously affected “Carpathian” accent.)
When Monroe’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), abandons her to return to the U.S., the star effortlessly reels in the film’s third assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) to provide her with some off-set entertainment. Twenty-three-year-old Colin reacts to the attentions of the sexiest woman on Earth in just the way you’d expect: he turns all dreamy-eyed, falling for her in that goofy-English-schoolboy way that is so reminiscent of that time Romilda Vane drugged Ron Weasley with those love-potion-infused Chocolate Cauldrons in the sixth Harry Potter.
In the shadow of Williams, Eddie Redmayne has not gotten a lot of attention for his portrayal of Colin Clark, but he really is a refreshing face. His geeky attractiveness brought a unique dimension to his God-fearing young monk in Black Death, and here, he seems even more in control of the character he’s playing.
This film will not get my vote for Best Picture, mainly because it only dances on the surface of Monroe’s psyche instead of going deeper. However, when it comes to the Oscar for Best Actress, I have certainly joined Team Michelle Willams for now (I’m still holding out to see Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin). Before seeing the film, I thought everyone was overstating Williams’ ability to turn herself into Monroe. It seemed blasphemous to even suggest that a present-day actress could pull it off. But as Williams recreates Monroe’s “charming dance” number from The Prince and the Showgirl, it becomes apparent just how thoroughly Williams has mastered her craft. She nails the vocal cadence, the inching walk, and even somehow, the spark that seemed to flash from Monroe’s eyes, or at least from her mascara.
Though primarily comedic, the film does have its touches of darkness, as when one of Monroe’s indulgent handlers admits that they give her pills in order to control her. Or as when a weepy Monroe confides in her young admirer that although the men she marries fall in love with Marilyn, “as soon as they find out I’m not her, they leave.” When Olivier is fed up with Monroe, he berates her: “Just be sexy! That’s what you do, isn’t it?” To him, she is untrained, and when she gets it right onscreen it is only because some kind of magic has happened. His character never fully recognizes that it wasn’t “magic” that created Marilyn Monroe, but a talented woman who had perfected the craft of being sexy, a professional who was at the top of her game. In this scene, Monroe’s cold look at Olivier reminds us that Monroe struggled to be taken seriously not only as an actress but also as an intelligent human being, and a film like this encourages us step back and think about how damaging it may have been for Monroe to be characterized as the proverbial “dumb blonde” during her lifetime. I’m happy to see that critics are praising Michelle Williams’ intelligence for crafting her version of Marilyn Monroe. I just wish more of Monroe’s contemporaries had given Norma Jeane Baker the credit she deserved for crafting her own.