There have been plenty of films I’ve enjoyed and appreciated in 2011, but I’ve waited a 11-and-a-half months to walk out of a theater and say I love a film. That streak is now over.
My Week with Marilyn based on Colin Clark’s memoir, recounts the young man’s first experience working on a film as the third assistant director of The Prince and the Showgirl directed and starring renown British actor Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and American sensation Marilyn Monroe (Williams).
My Week with Marilyn isn’t only a love story to the troubled actress, but also this age of filmmaking and celebrity when one of England’s greatest actors took a chance on an increasingly hard to work with actress who the camera loved. The experiment went so well Olivier would essentially give up directing and return to the stage.
When we meet him, Colin (Eddie Redmayne) is already obsessed with the movie business. Despite his family’s wealth and position he is determined to make his way in the profession. Whether this entails being little more than a gofer or waiting around for days on Olivier’s couch for the mere chance of an opportunity, it doesn’t matter in the slightest to the young man who has fallen in love with film.
Once employed, Colin learns how far over his head he really is when he’s assigned the task of keeping a difficult star happy on the set of Olivier’s latest film. That star is Marilyn Monroe, and the film is an account of their short time together.
Both on and off the set Marilyn is a challenge. Olivier’s frustration with the actress and her insistence on Method acting is palpable, but so is his enchantment with what she’s able to do on-screen. Her litany of insecurities, blue moods, and prescription drugs cause extended shooting delays as the film falls further and further behind schedule.
Despite her looks, Marilyn wants to be taken as a serious actor, even if that means relying far too much on her relationship with Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) while alienating everyone else around her, often without understanding or acknowledging the effect her behavior has on others.
At the same time, much like Colin, Olivier finds himself entranced by her – even if she will be, as he remarks, the death of him. At one point in the film he imparts to Colin that he expected to be reborn and rejuvinated by simply being in her presence but, much to his disappointment, when watching the dailies her beauty only makes him look older on-screen.
As difficult as she is to work with it would be easy to dismiss her, except fro the fact that she simply has “it.” The camera loves her, as do all the men she drives crazy. This includes her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) who obviously loves her but was unprepared by how consumed he’d become by her constant need and overwhelming presence.
I’ve seen some critics dismiss My Week with Marilyn as fluff or attack the historical accuracy of the film, but they’re missing the point. Although it has its share of dramatic moments, the film is a romance not a tragedy. It’s a celebration of this short period in time that changed one man’s life irrevocably, and altered the course of more than a few British actors including that of Olivier. And if the story feels a little larger than life, having grown more vibrant in the telling over the years, that’s okay too, as it contains just the right amount of magic for a film about the movie business.
My Week with Marilyn is smart, sassy, enchanting, and far smarter than some critics might give it credit for. It’s not surprising the subject of the film earned much the same criticism for most of her career.
The script by Adrian Hodges is filled with some great one-liners including a couple of droll comments by Toby Jones in a small role as a crude commentator for the series of events that begin to unfold on set once Marilyn arrives. Even centered around a character with a litany of problems, the film is hopeful, humorous, and wistful of a time when Marilyn Monroe was the biggest star in the world.
The supporting cast is terrific. Branaugh is obviously enjoying the hell out of playing Olivier and there are several small roles with just the right touch of class and humor including Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Dominic Cooper as Marilyn’s drug supplier and former boy toy, and Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike (the only one, other than Colin, showing Marilyn support on set).
I was also very impressed with Emma Watson who is given far too small of a role as a wardrobe mistress on the set. Her character is Colin’s first love interest, before his world, like that of so many men before him, is all consumed by Marilyn. Although her time on-screen is short, she proves to be a stand-out in a film filled with talented and experienced actors.
Despite the great recreation of the look and style of the period, a host of great supporting roles, and a strong male lead, the true discussion of the film will begin (and, for some, will end) with a single performance. Williams is a marvel in capturing the actress’ insecurity, sexiness, and mix of drive and fear at the celebrity she so covets. Williams’ Marilyn is damaged but mesmerizing. She craves the spotlight while lamenting the loss of a simple life.
Williams certainly has the right look and body type for the part, but her transformation is more than just a little makeup and high-pitched speaking voice. Although the film’s story belongs to that of Redmayne’s character, the film, without any doubt belongs to Williams whose portrayal of the actress is as good, if not better, than any I have seen.
My Week with Marilyn is a wonderful little film that isn’t bogged down in cynicism as is so much of this year’s Oscar fare. Its hopeful longing of a time, place, and a particular woman is as enchanting as the actress herself. It’s a nice bit of movie magic you don’t want to miss.