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My Week With Marilyn

November 27, 2011
My Week With Marilyn

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe traveled to England to work with Sir Laurence Olivier on his first non-Shakespeare directing project, The Prince and the Showgirl. Freshly married to Arthur Miller, Monroe was at the height of her career, but part of her was still Norma Jeane Baker, and the limelight wasn’t always comfortable. Over the four-month production, she struck up an unlikely friendship with Colin Clark, the young third assistant director in his first job ever. Or so Clark wrote in his diaries about the making of the movie, which have been adapted into My Week With Marilyn.

Clark (Eddie Redmayne) came from a well-placed family which sent him to Eton, but didn’t exactly back him in his desire to work in movies. Luckily, he met Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) at a society event; Leigh took a liking to him and convinced Olivier to find something for him to do on the upcoming film.

All is well until the arrival of Monroe (Michelle Williams), who turns life upside-down. She is accompanied by Miller (Dougray Scott) and her entourage — publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones), photographer Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). Right away, Marilyn is an emotional wreck, showing up late, unable to remember her lines. When she gets it right she nails her part, but it takes her a dozen tries to get it right. Despite this, her entourage constantly tell her how great she is, and we get the feeling that much of “Marilyn” is a manufactured front.

But it’s not just her entourage; fellow actress Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) seems to see something worthwhile in Monroe and deftly moves to help her even as Olivier rages at her behavior. And Olivier himself is still taken with Monroe when she manages to pull herself together. He’s a great actor who wants to be a movie star; she’s a movie star who wants to be a great actress; and he sees a glimmer of something great in her.

Because Marilyn Monroe was always a performance, anyway. Norma Jeane Baker played her day in, day out, and is it any wonder that having to live like that would leave a person off balance? Williams does an excellent job of bringing this Marilyn to life, and it’s instantly apparent when she turns the character on and when she reverts to herself — usually a scared little girl, but sometimes able to relax in Clark’s company. Besides this distinction, Williams recreates Monroe impeccably; obviously I never knew Monroe in person so I can’t really judge that part, but Williams has the body language, manner, and voice down pat, including five of her classic songs.

Director Simon Curtis and Cinematographer Ben Smithard do just as good a job in recreating The Prince and the Showgirl. Each clip we see looks spot-on like the original. And of course I would be remiss in not mentioning Branagh’s performance; as a Shakespearean actor and director himself, no one is better qualified to portray Olivier.

So, did things really happen as portrayed in the film? It’s hard to say, since all we really have is Clark’s account. Either way, it makes for a captivating story, and one of Williams’ best performances yet.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s a tough call; Monroe and Strasberg talk, but they never really have a full conversation. I’m going to say it fails.

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