My Week With Marilyn is apparently based on a true story.
We know this because the film not only uses the opening title card to tell us that the story is true but the movie itself is narrated by Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne) and Colin tells us pretty much the same thing, over and over again. (Seriously, this film reminded me of why I usually don’t care much for first person narration.) Anyway, the film takes place in the late 1957. Colin is the 3rd Assistant Director, working with Laurence Olivier (a haughty and pompous yet oddly touching performance from Kenneth Branagh) on a film called The Prince and the Showgirl. The film stars Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) who quickly starts to annoy Olivier when it becomes obvious that she’s painfully insecure, self-destructive, and dominated by her agent, acting coach, and cold husband. Colin, however, is smitten with Marilyn and, despite the ominous warnings delivered by everyone else in the film, he soon finds himself falling in love with her and giving this film a title by spending a week with Marilyn.
My Week With Marilyn has been getting a lot of attention lately because many Oscar watchers are expecting to see Michelle Williams receive a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Marilyn Monroe. Lately, Kenneth Branagh has become something of a dark horse for a best supporting actor nomination and personally, I would say that Julia Ormond (as a paranoid Vivien Leigh) and Judi Dench (as a supportive actress) both deserve some consideration as well.
The film is ultimately dominated by Michelle Williams and it works whenever she’s on-screen. (And, unfortunately, it pretty much falls apart whenever she’s not.) Williams has the daunting job of playing an icon here and she manages to be both believable as an icon and as a very fragile and poignant human being. The script, to be honest, doesn’t give her much help. As written, Marilyn is alternatively presented as being a helpless damsel in need of a white knight, a calculating seductress who threatens to lead Colin off of the straight and narrow path (represented here by Emma Watson as the girl that Colin treats quite badly) and a convenient symbol of a lost age. The brilliance of Michelle Williams is in how she manages to use these three conflicting characterizations to create one very believable Marilyn Monroe.
The main problem with this film is that it’s not called Marilyn. Instead, it’s My Week With Marilyn and, as a result, the film is actually about the male gaze of the “My” of the title. As good a performance as Williams gives, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, as far as this film is concerned, Marilyn ultimately exists just to teach Colin a few life lessons. Unfortunately, as a character, Colin Clark is so thinly written that he’s never all that compelling and, as the film progresses, it’s hard not to feel that he’s ultimately using Marilyn just as surely as everyone else is.
(In all honestly, however, I have to admit that one of my issues with Colin is that he’s played by Eddie Redmayne. Don’t get me wrong, Redmayne is a good actor and he manages to make Colin almost likable but I simply cannot look at him without flashing back to Redmayne’s performance in Savage Grace. That’s the movie where he plays a schizophrenic who has an incestuous relationship with his mother (Julianne Moore) before murdering her. Redmayne was so effectively creepy in that film that, as unprofessional as it may be for a film critic, I had a hard time accepting him in the role of white knight.)
I’ve read a lot of reviews that have complained that this film is basically just a big budget Lifetime Movie and, in many ways, it is. Director Simon Curtis is a veteran of television and the film has the crisp but flat look of a tv show. But even more than just the cinematography, My Week With Marilyn feels like a TV movie because its script hesitates to raise any issues that can’t be resolved in two hours. That said, it’s really not sordid or silly enough to be a great Lifetime movie and it’s far too well acted to be a waste-of-time. Ultimately, this is a flawed film that deserves to be seen for its performances. If only the entire film was as compelling and interesting as the performances of Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond, and especially Michelle Williams.