My Week With Marilyn (2011)
Glamorous Sex Goddess, Longing to Be Human
In 1976, the year that Marilyn Monroe would have turned 50, Larry McMurtry wrote that she “is right in there with our major ghosts: Hemingway, the Kennedy brothers — people who finished with American life before America had time to finish with them.” Almost a half-century after her death, the world, or at least its necrophiliac fantasists, still haven’t finished with Monroe and try to resurrect her again and again in movies, books, songs and glamour layouts featuring dewy and ruined ingénues. Maybe it’s because it’s so difficult to imagine her as Old Marilyn that she has become a Ghost of Hollywood Past, a phantom that periodically materializes to show us things that have been.
The latest attempt at resurrection occurs in “My Week With Marilyn,” with Michelle Williams as the Ghost. The movie is largely based on a slim 2000 book that a British documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne, in a role of many smiles and little depth), claimed was a true account of an intimate interlude he spent with Monroe in 1956 while they were making “The Prince and the Showgirl.” At the time Monroe was newly married to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and hoped that the film, based on a Terence Rattigan play, would help her move past sexpot roles. But the shoot turned into a clash of egos and cultures that threw her, leading her co-star and director, Laurence Olivier, to damn her as “the stupidest, most self-indulgent little tart I’ve ever come across.”
This is Sir Larry the Cruel, an assessment cemented by the miscast Kenneth Branagh’s intermittently amusing, unctuous take on Olivier as a pitifully vain, insensitive clod. Those familiar with Olivier, who was 49 when he made “Showgirl” and still strikingly handsome, may be distracted by the physical differences between him and Branagh, whose soft face registers as a blur compared with Olivier’s sculptured solidity. Branagh makes up for this disparity somewhat with his crisp, at times clipped, enunciation and a physical performance that gives Olivier enough vitality so that when, early in, the character sweeps into his production office with his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond, a wan placeholder for the original), he dazzles Clark and jolts this slow-stirring movie awake.
Clark, the son of the art historian Kenneth Clark, decided at 23, as he put it, to run away to the circus by working in the movies, an easy enough goal because his parents were friends with Olivier and Leigh. He became a glorified gofer on “Showgirl” (officially, its third assistant director), a position that involved managing Monroe, who during the shoot soon went from bad to worse, from late to missing in action. Her already strained marriage was one reason; Olivier was another. “Just be sexy,” he told Monroe, “isn’t that what you do?” No wonder she misbehaved: The man she idolized as the world’s greatest actor — and whom her production company hired — was a chauvinist bum.
He didn’t get Monroe, and she is similarly out of the grasp of this movie. Ms. Williams tries her best, and sometimes that’s almost enough. She’s too thin for the role, more colorlessly complected than creamy, but she whispers and wobbles nicely. (The costumes hug her tight, but wrongly round out her breasts, which should thrust like rockets ready for liftoff.)
The problem isn’t Ms. Williams or the serviceable work of the director Simon Curtis, but a script by Adrian Hodges that hews faithfully to Clark’s clichés. Instead of the complex woman familiar from the better books about her, the film offers a catalog of Monroe stereotypes: child, woman, smiling exhibitionist, shrieking neurotic, the barefooted free spirit and, lamentably, the martyr teetering in heels toward her doom.
The tragic Monroe is obviously dramatic, but the intimations of disaster don’t fit a movie that works so hard to be breezily, easily likable. Everything on screen looks good and period-appropriate, if also too manicured, as if the past had been digitally spruced up. Mr. Curtis, who has long directed for television (his credits include the 1999 BBC production of “David Copperfield”), here tends to arrange everything in the frame neatly, often by putting people and other focal points dead center. This isn’t uncommon in comedy, where such centeredness helps build tension as you wait for comic anarchists to wreck a meticulously organized world. In “My Week With Marilyn,” this visual approach adds nothing and comes across as generic, as do as the jerky, handheld newsreel shots and popping photo bulbs.
Mr. Curtis enlivens the movie with music, busyness and Zoe Wanamaker’s darkly comic, toadying turn as Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, as well as, always, the promise of the real Monroe. (Emma Watson has a thankless part as a diversion for Clark.) Mr. Curtis’s most unwise filmmaking move, however, is to put Ms. Williams continually into familiar Monroe poses and quote her famous photos and films — nude Marilyn, tousled Marilyn, singing Marilyn — a strategy that undermines his efforts to turn the idol into a person. He shows that Monroe is aware enough of her image that she knows — with a wink, a smile, a shake and a shimmy — how to turn her persona on for public consumption, but he too can’t escape wanting and always returning to that Marilyn Monroe.
“Shall I be her?” she asks Clark, who, like this film, would like nothing better.
“My Week With Marilyn” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Foul language, drug and alcohol abuse and discreet female nudity.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Directed by Simon Curtis; written by Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries of Colin Clark, “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me” and “My Week With Marilyn”; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Adam Recht; music by Conrad Pope, with “Marilyn’s Theme” by Alexandre Desplat, piano solos by Lang Lang; production design by Donal Woods; costumes by Jill Taylor; produced by David Parfitt and Harvey Weinstein; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.
WITH: Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Dominic Cooper (Milton Greene), Philip Jackson (Roger Smith), Derek Jacobi (Owen Morshead), Toby Jones (Arthur Jacobs), Michael Kitchen (Hugh Perceval), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Simon Russell Beale (Cotes-Preedy), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Zoe Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg), Emma Watson (Lucy) and Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndike).