It had to have been a daunting task, if also a working actress’ dream come true, to play Marilyn Monroe. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure I’d like what Michelle Williams did with the part in My Week With Marilyn; it’s easy enough to dye hair, apply lipstick, study mannerisms, but how to convey that sexy innocence (or is it innocent sexiness?) that the onscreen Monroe exuded? Somehow, despite not really looking a lot like the celluloid bombshell, Williams gets us to see beyond issues like hair and makeup, and invites us into a Marilyn who is funny, very aware of her ability to provoke and arouse, a genuine movie star, and an intensely insecure actress and woman. Based on the memoirs of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who worked on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, the making of which is the backdrop for the movie, My Week celebrates the legend at its center, but is also an interesting study in acting, stardom, age and sexual politics.
Monroe, traveling with husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), arrives in England to an expected avalanche of publicity and paparazzi. Stepping onto the Pinewood Studios set, however, she’s a complete basket case, utterly intimidated by storied professionals like Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), the writer-director of the picture-within-this-picture, and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench). Her frequent absences and late arrivals, her complete reliance on her Method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), and her lack of confidence in her talent nearly bring the production to a halt. When she finds Miller’s notebook, which contains less-than-flattering scribblings about his wife, she really loses it. Luckily for the backers and cast, Monroe has taken a shine to young Colin, a connected Etonian who has been hired as a “third” (aka gofer/flunky), whose awestruck admiration for the star is sweet and compelling. Even as he’s warned that Monroe uses men, he stays true, providing her honest opinions and answers to questions like why Olivier seemingly hates her.
The budding, if brief, friendship between the star and the gofer is touching, even as it relies on our taking at Clark’s word that he alone never exploited the relationship with Monroe—although at last count, in addition to this film, he has written at least two books about said relationship. There’s a sweetly funny scene in which the two go skinny dipping; the look on Colin’s face when the world’s most famous sex symbol nonchalantly strips before him is priceless. Like the other men in her life, Colin ultimately wishes to try to save her from herself, an impossible task, at the same time that he wishes to bed her, something which here is only hinted at.
Adrian Hodges’ screenplay lacks a real center, moving from a portrait of Marilyn to the battle of wills between Monroe and Olivier—by far a more compelling emotional struggle—and it removes from its protagonist not just her well-noted edginess, but also her uncanny knowledge of how to use the camera to capitalize on her assets. Dench’s Dame Sybil is a marvelous character, providing comfort and advice to the young star and understanding implicitly her worth, until she basically disappears from the story. What amounts to a sidebar story with Colin’s flirtation with Emma Watson’s wardrobe girl seems to exist only to show viewers that the actress can do something other than Hermione Granger. There’s a sharp exchange between a shrewd Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) and Olivier, which, combined with Thorndike’s appraisal, make us think that the ladies in the vicinity “got” Marilyn a whole lot better than her male admirers and hangers-on.
Ultimately, however, My Week With Marilyn is all about showcasing Williams’ ability to transform herself wholeheartedly and convincingly into one of our greatest cultural icons. It’s a great performance, and one that is sure to be remembered this awards season.