Film Review: My Week with Marilyn

A triumphantly entertaining examination of the ultimate movie icon, miraculously embodied by Michelle Williams.

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe (played here by Michelle Williams), accompanied by her husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), went to England to film The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by her co-star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). The play had been written by Terence Rattigan for Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), but she was deemed too old for the role, especially in light of Monroe’s dazzlingly commanding stardom and Olivier’s desperate wish to become the movie star he never quite was.

My Week with Marilyn, based on two memoirs by the then-young man who was third assistant director on the film, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), is about the movie’s making, with all of its attendant problems stemming from Monroe’s various addictions and her tardiness and forgetfulness on the set, which drove Olivier mad. It is, in a word, smashing. Celeb biopics rarely work, especially dealing with icons as celebrated as these, but, here, Adrian Hodges’ wittily observant, deeply empathetic screenplay and Simon Curtis’ smoothly percipient, actor-adept direction carry it off. The production is luxuriantly handsome in the extreme, from its lushly glamorous cinematography, perfect period recreations and lightly schmaltzy but very effective piano theme by Alexandre Desplat (played by no less than Lang Lang).

The film starts shakily with poor Williams having to immediately convince us, by singing and dancing an inaccurate mash-up of various Monroe numbers indifferently choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, but once that’s out of the way, the actress so completely embodies this pre-eminent star, in all of her sexiness, fun and heartbreak, that she’s a virtual shoo-in for this year’s Oscar. Although not possessing the perfect facial prettiness of Monroe, at times when the half-lighting is right she looks uncannily like her, and breathtakingly captures every facet of the real woman, playing her movie-star image so at odds with her insecure reality, as well as her lightly comedic role in Olivier’s film. It’s a dazzlingly layered performance, and a monumental achievement when you consider its challenges.

When you see Williams, eternally hunted down by paparazzi and fans alike, and either retreating in terror or suddenly enslaving them with the Monroe poses that are etched onto everyone’s DNA, and then in more private moments dealing with personalities ranging from husband to cast and crew, with their endless varyingly exploitative agendas, you fully comprehend what made Monroe the fascinating mess she was. Hodges has her deliver her tortured backstory in dramatically well-timed bites that have a piercingly delicate pathos. I was never a total Monroe fan myself, but more than anything—be it a book or documentary film—Williams’ performance made me finally, really get this icon who was such a seemingly blank canvas on which others drew their desires so ruthlessly.

Branagh is equally superb, capturing Olivier’s formidable ego and brilliance with an understanding humanity (and necessary cruelty) that keeps it always from being a mere spot-on impersonation, with that tiny, mean mouth and seen-it-all leonine eyes. His on-set frustration is irresistibly amusing and his imitation of the over-the-top Slavic accent Olivier used as the Prince humorously adds to his overall, amazingly adept accomplishment. Ormond is less successful; Leigh, with her unsurpassed beauty, intelligence and dangerous, mercurial allure, is much harder to pull off than either Olivier or Monroe, and this actress—too matronly here by half—lacks the real thing’s iridescent grace, elegantly commanding vocal inflections and hypnotic charisma.

Scott, too, is a shaky fit as Miller, too blandly saturnine to convey this artist’s intriguing complexity and questionable motives. Redmayne manages to be a very affecting, not too callow and highly seduce-able innocent (however on the make), despite what reservations one may feel about the exact accuracy of Clark’s account of his intimacy with Monroe. (No one else is alive to confirm or refute this, and why the writer chose to withhold this information from his first book, and then put out a second detailing it in full, seems a tad suspect to me.)

But, once we get on the set of this benighted film they’re all trying to make, when you have additional delicious personalities like Judi Dench (a charmingly gracious Dame Sybil Thorndike), Zoë Wanamaker (a hilariously obsequious Paula Strasberg, Olivier’s bane for her “additional direction” of Marilyn), Dominic Cooper (nicely forceful as Monroe’s business manager Milton Greene) and others, it’s pure showbiz heaven, as devastatingly accurate and enjoyable as All About Eve. I, for one, could have gladly joined them all, waiting for Marilyn to show up, for a happy eternity.