You don’t really buy Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe the first time you see her in My Week with Marilyn. Singing and dancing to a medley of When Love Goes Wrong and Heat Wave, Williams has the legendary icon’s body language down, but she doesn’t really look like Monroe and she doesn’t have her voluptuous curves, either. In that opening scene, you can only see Williams, a supremely gifted actress, trying really hard.
But just wait a little while. One of the chief pleasures of My Week with Marilyn — which should not be approached as anything other than fluffy entertainment — is watching Williams bring to life Monroe’s inner demons and her movie-star allure with equal aplomb. By the time the film’s book-ending closing musical number comes around (That Old Black Magic), the illusion is astounding and complete.
Monroe has been portrayed in fictional films as often as James Dean: Hollywood loves its tragedies even more than its successes. But Williams, finally getting a chance to glam it up after a career of playing ordinary women with dirt under their fingernails (Blue Valentine, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy), does something marvelous with Monroe. She channels every facet of the legend’s persona — her seductiveness, her neuroses, her candle-in-the-wind vulnerability and sometimes breathtaking naïveté — while keeping her feet planted firmly on the ground. Williams makes Monroe simultaneously seem larger than life and heartbreakingly human. She shows you why practically everyone who met Monroe fell under her spell – and why she was an endless source of frustration and unfulfilled potential.
Few were more frustrated than Sir Laurence Olivier (smashingly played by Kenneth Branagh), who hopes to benefit from Monroe’s popularity when he invites her to co-star with him in The Prince and the Showgirl, a comedy he directed in 1956. Olivier is also planning to have an affair with Monroe if at all possible, but that is quickly forgotten when Monroe arrives and Olivier realizes the depth of her insecurities (she clings to her Method acting coach like a blanket) and her lack of professionalism (she was often late to the set, constantly flubbed lines and some days never even showed up).
Their contentious relationship, which is played primarily for laughs, is seen through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the 23-year-old assistant director whose two memoirs formed the basis of the film. Although the veracity of Clark’s books has been contested, they have been adapted by screenwriter Adrien Hodges with complete earnestness.
My Week with Marilyn marks the directorial debut of British TV and theater veteran Simon Curtis, who has used his industry connections to fill practically every role in the film with a famous face. Judi Dench plays Dame Sybil Thorndike, who co-starred with Olivier and Monroe in the film and took a liking to the nervous American star; Dougray Scott plays Arthur Miller, who had just married Monroe before their trip to England (he was her third husband, even though she was only 30); and Harry Potter’s Emma Watson plays a wardrobe assistant who catches Clark’s eye.
Of course, she couldn’t compete with Monroe, who relies increasingly on Clark as the situation on the set grows more tense (“Whose side are you on?” she asks him) and eventually takes him into her confidence. Their platonic romance forms the heart of My Week with Marilyn, but it’s Williams’ uncanny performance that gives the movie its soul. Whether she’s conveying Monroe’s initial delight at the flash mob that forms on the street when she tries to go shopping (a delight that quickly turns into terror) or reenacting the self-destructive habits that would eventually consume her, Williams does the icon right — she humanizes an untouchable legend.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Dominic Cooper, Zoe Wanamaker, Toby Jones, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Derek Jacobi.
Director: Simon Curtis.
Screenwriter: Adrien Hodges. Based on the books My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, The Showgirl and Me by Colin Clark.
Producer: David Parfitt.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 101 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.