“My Week With Marilyn” (2011)
There’s an old adage that it takes a star to play a star. The casting of My Week with Marilyn presented extraordinary challenges in this regard. To depict the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1950s cinematic footnote notable more for its players than its artistic achievement, it was necessary to find actors capable of filling the most famous of shoes. Few today would quibble about inaccuracies in the portrayal of Dame Sybil Thorndike but get the likes of Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe wrong and the whole project could collapse.
As a part Marilyn Monroe is something of a poisoned chalice. It’s easy to look ridiculous and even if you do manage a performance that’s anywhere near right you’ll get at best the kind faint praise that’s associated with mourning an unique original. The surface mannerisms can be nailed - the hair, the voice, the pout - but the inner woman usually remains elusive. Untold small screen wannabes have given it go but none have really nailed it.
Michelle Williams gets closer than most. Whilst physically dissimilar and an entirely more disciplined actress she shares a certain kind of luminosity with Monroe. She can’t “play sexy” anymore than Marilyn could when Olivier offered her hopelessly wrong-headed direction, but the icon’s needy vulnerability, charm and psychological turmoil are wonderfully put across. It’s only in some misjudged and quite unnecessary musical numbers - none from The Prince and the Showgirl itself - that the cracks begin to show. In repose and conversation Williams can convince as Monroe but in performance she lacks the physical spark, her movements looking clumsy and self-conscious.
It is a small flaw in a film that completely succeeds in its main ambition. The tale of Colin Clark, a well bred young man who sees the British film industry as a way to escape his famous family’s shadow, might be a minor one when it comes to great movie romances, but that’s the material’s strength. My Week with Marilyn perfectly pitches Clark’s coming of age narrative against a witty show business backdrop, a grand collision of some of the 20th century’s most well known cultural figures at which the young, debuting ‘third assistant director’ was a first hand witness.
As Clark comparative unknown Eddie Redmayne acquits himself well, holding the centre together whilst better known thespians relish the chance to play their acting idols. There’s a sweet chemistry between him and both Williams and Emma Watson, the latter at last liberated from the world of Harry Potter and quietly playing an undemonstrative wardrobe mistress.
If Judi Dench has fun as Thorndike Kenneth Branagh makes an absolute meal of the Olivier part. Long burdened by comparisons between himself and Lord Larry - ones he appeared to court when adapting first Henry V and then Hamlet to the screen - Branagh is a delight in every scene he appears. The moments where the script has him quoting Shakespeare as Olivier - one generation’s master paying homage to another’s - are a kind of dream come true, as much you sense for the performer as for fans of both men. Mostly however Branagh’s is a grumpy, somewhat stiff Olivier, a star at professional and personal cross-roads, challenged by the new acting method and out of his depth when directing a talent as intuitive as Monroe.
The characterisations of Vivien Leigh and Arthur Miller are less successful. To be fair to Dougray Scott he’s not given that much to work with, being in effect the cuckold of the piece, but Julia Ormond as Lady Olivier is miscast. Looking nothing like the legend who made Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois her own, there’s also little in Ormond’s voice or body language to suggest Leigh’s highly strung personality or mental illness.
Ultimately this does not matter. My Week with Marilyn is sweet, unpretentious entertainment, telling a simple tale in a straightforward manner. Beyond the story of Clark himself it adds little to what is commonly known about Monroe or Olivier and has nothing much thematically on its mind. Its achievement is to render legends as credible, insecure human beings, giving a snapshot of careers at low ebb, without recourse to either melodrama or satire.
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