Rarely do performances transcend the quality of the movie they appear in. In My Week With Marilyn, Michelle Williams accomplishes that feat while taking on the persona of the iconic screen legend Marilyn Monroe.
Though director Simon Curtis makes the bold move to start the film with Williams performing “Heat Wave,” it takes the film awhile to rise above the dull overtures setting up the appearance of Monroe at the heart of the film’s drama, which includes the showy prelude. Great, Williams does her own singing. She also captures Monroe’s mannerisms. It almost comes across as a campy impersonation. But I blame the over-reach of the director. The redeeming factor is the inkling of sincerity in Williams’ eyes and a subtlety in her gestures that manages to rise above the din, including Monroe’s exaggerated curves.
The movie is based on the book The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set With Marilyn and Olivier by Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne in this film version). Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) hired him as third assistant director in the UK-production of the Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 comedy directed by and starring Olivier.
Clark would never go on to much success beyond his role in this movie, but apparently, according to his book, he had a unique and close relationship with Monroe during the production. Hired as a newbie assistant at Olivier’s production company he was entrusted to make sure Monroe appeared to the set on time. The film opens and closes with Clark’s voice-over, as if lifted from the book, which was based on a diary he kept while the film was in production. It’s all young, naive high hopes and aspirations, as he lucks into following through a foot-in-the-door opportunity to make it in the picture business.
There is much build up to Monroe’s appearance in the movie. Characters constantly repeat her name. There are slow motion shots of her, flash bulbs from paparazzi fill the screen and corny orchestral music. It could be camp were it not so sincere. The film has a made-for-TV quality, and it is no wonder, as Curtis only has made movies for television up until My Week With Marilyn. The film is a by-the-numbers drama, and it is ultimately up to Williams to perform the heavy lifting to help the film rise above the material.
The drama finally begins to transcend the tropes when Monroe appears on the London set of the film for her first day of work. With her method acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), wife of Lee Strasberg, who popularized Stanislavski’s acting system in Hollywood, at her side, Monroe comes across as something much less iconic and much more human. Strasberg treats Monroe like some strange exotic creature who needs special handling to tap into the emotion necessary for her role. It annoys Olivier to no end, and his reaction rattles Monroe’s already frayed nerves.
With Clark in-between, who Monroe latches on to like some human security blanket, the drama finally begins to soar. The relationship endangers Clark’s budding romance with a wardrobe girl (Emma Watson) and Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), but it never comes across as some torrid love affair. Clark clearly becomes infatuated, but Monroe seems to be wanting to reach out for humbling human contact in an almost desperate manner.
Meanwhile, Strasberg’s smothering attention adds another layer of powerful tension and contrasts the vulnerability and pathos Williams brings out of her version of Monroe. She seems tortured by the weight of words from Strasberg like, “You’re the greatest actress that has ever lived.” An insecurity conflicted with her awareness of having to be “on” as the living alter ego that is Marilyn Monroe (she was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, after all) even while trying to shop in the streets of London. She seems worn and frayed.
Only Clark seems to calm Monroe. Tense with the pressure of Olivier’s demands to show up on time at the set and remember her lines, she looks to Clark for some emotional relief. The moments they share reveal the deeper drama in the story and a humanity that more often than not eludes celebrities. After all, these people do not only act in movies, they all take on personas for the press and the public. Monroe knew this well, and it weighed on her. Williams wears the weight dynamically, from her flirting with reporters at a press conference to her quiet solitude locked in her hotel room strung out on pills. When Olivier openly whines about her needs to emotionally prepare to act as dictated by the method, it hurts Monroe. Clark tells her, “You’re the future, and that frightens him.” It’s a line that resonates with relief of understanding, encouragement and pressure, and a line that indeed defined Monroe far beyond her short life.
My Week With Marilyn is Rated R and opens today at select theaters.