One week in 1956, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) journeyed to London to start filming, with director and co-star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), the romantic comedy “The Prince and the Showgirl.” When the American diva proves to be unreliable and overly emotional, an ambitious young 3rd assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), is assigned to help the movie star get through the tense ordeal of making a movie during “My Week with Marilyn.”
Very much akin in spirit to the 1982 50s-nostalga hit, “My Favorite Year,” “My Week with Marilyn” is an honorarium to one of the first super stars of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe. The story is based on the memoirs of Colin Clark about his experiences getting close to his idol and how he helped her to overcome her anxieties and complete the film. Television director Simon Curtis makes his feature debut and captures Clark’s passion over Marilyn Monroe and makes it his own.
It helps a newcomer to the big screen to have talented actors to fill their larger than life characters. Here, Curtis has one Oscar Winner, Branagh, and a two-time Oscar nominee, Williams, and an all-star cast and delivers a film that is mature and well-crafted and much more than a calling card. The screenplay, from another TV alumnus, Adrian Hodges, is evenly paced as it explores the tensions between Olivier and his prima donna co-star.
Michelle Williams has proven a worthy actor and she embodies Marilyn. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh gives a terrific turn as thespian and filmmaker Olivier. Branagh, when he first hit the big screen, was compared to Sir Laurence, making for a nice bit of bookending. The supporting cast is made up with the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Julia Ormand, Derek Jacobi, Dougray Scott, Toby Jones and Emma Watson and they, and the rest, aid in making this a film of fully developed characters.
Production is solid all around with good shrift given to the period. It feels like you are on a big-budget movie set and attention to the details of set design, costume and cinematography shows. By Hollywood standards, “My Week with Marilyn” was made on a shoe string budget but the filmmakers squeeze every buck dry and it looks like it cost much more – especially because of the stellar cast. I expect awards attention come year’s end. I give it a B+.
Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams, "Shutter Island," "Meek's Cutoff") was still honeymooning with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, "Ripley's Game"), when she arrived in England for the first time. It was 1956 and she had been wooed by Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, "Henry V") to appear with him in "The Prince and the Showgirl." But their professional relationship was a clash of the titans and the insecure star, whose husband had returned to the States, turned to 3rd assistant director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne, "Savage Grace," "The Other Boleyn Girl") for understanding. Decades later, he published his second memoir, "My Week With Marilyn."
This inside look at great talent creating from the perspective of a lowly crew member was recently seen in "Me and Orson Welles," but this is a better film primarily because its focus is kept on the star and the star's relationship with the storyteller is far more compelling. Michelle Williams, who doesn't particularly look like Monroe, is so successful channeling her in a luminous, brilliant performance that one forgets one's watching another actress. As brought to the screen by television director Simon Curtis (PBS's 'Cranford'), the movie fits right into his slate of British period productions. Cinematographer Ben Smithard ('Cranford,' "The Trip") imparts British greyness to locations but burnishes exteriors during the magical week with a golden glow. The filmmakers take great advantage of Parkside House, the actual house which Clark procured for Marilyn.
The film begins with Colin's amusing persistence attempting to get his first job on a film set. Having been promised one by Olivier at a party (Clark's family was old money and he moved in elevated circles), the young man simply camps out every day until Oliver and Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond, "Smilla's Sense of Snow," HBO's 'Temple Grandin') stop in at the office. He impresses. When the lovely house he's rented for Marilyn is outed by the media, Colin pipes up to dismayed producers that the better house he's acquired has a more discreet owner. Then Marilyn arrives and all hell breaks loose.
Olivier is no fan of the method and annoyed when Marilyn's acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone") overrides his direction. A consummate old world professional, he has little patience for Marilyn's tardiness and inability to remember lines. The diplomatic Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench, "Shakespeare in Love," 2011's "Jane Eyre") supports the young star, as does Colin, earning her trust. Soon he's getting private phone calls and sneaking over to her home, something he's been forbidden to do and something the wardrobe assistant he'd starting courting, Lucy ("Harry Potter's" Emma Watson), is hurt by.
Oddly, the titular week is but a small part of the film, a neat little travelogue to places like Windsor Castle, Eton and the banks of the Thames which seem to take place in a day rather than a week (screenwriter Adrian Hodges ("Tom & Viv") also used Colins's prior memoir, "The Prince, The Showgirl and Me," which skirted his personal relationship with the star). Here Williams gets to be the 'real' Marilyn, at one point coyly asking Colin if she should 'give them her' when the castle staff gather. Williams really gets at every aspect of Marilyn - the one made-up for her audience, the woman yearning for love (she's devastating in the aftermath of finding Miller's notes on her), the insecure actress, the phenomenal talent (a little dance-strut for the film) and plain old Norma Jean.
We also get a good sense of Olivier's trials and Branagh, while not as mesmerizing, also gets under the skin of his Shakespearean forebear - at one point while 'acting' in the film within the film, he arches an eyebrow and transforms. He's also light on his feet, giving the film an underlying comedic tone as he curses and fusses and placates. Redmayne doesn't astonish in his role, but he's believable as the callow, bedazzled young man and he's commended for not getting lost amidst the star power. It's fun to watch supporting British actors like Dominic Cooper ("An Education," "The Devil's Double") and Toby Jones ("Infamous," "Your Highness") play crass Americans while Scottish Dougray Scott delivers American Miller. Jim Carter of Curtis's 'Cranford' adds color as the proprietor of the local pub. Support is great across the board, with only Ormond miscast as Leigh.
"My Week with Marilyn" is enjoyable as an inside look at old-timey filmmaking and a British travelogue, but it's Williams who makes it special. Despite the immense amount of Marilyn-abilia that's flooded the marketplace since the star's tragic death, Michelle Williams, in what's sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance, renews her allure.
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