No actress cast a bigger shadow in the American film industry then Marilyn Monroe. Which is, honestly, kind of strange when you think about it. She wasn’t the best actress of all time, even of her era. The definition of what is sexy in this country has change so much since then, you can’t even say she’s the ultimate American ideal of beauty. But Monroe did define what the modern sex symbol is. Her combination of sexuality, humor, and vulnerability is the standard hundreds of young starlets have tried to emulate ever since. Considering her iconic status, it’s no surprise there’s been many film takes on her life.
“My Week with Marilyn” isn’t a bio-film of the legendary actress. Instead, appropriately, it’s about how someone else observed her. About the feelings other people see in her and apply to her. Well, that’s what an icon really is, isn’t? Nobody becomes famous unless it’s more about us, then them.
The film is based off of two different autobiographical books by the same author, Colin Clark, the protagonist of the movie. The first, “The Prince, The Showgirl, And Me: The Colin Clark Diaries,” was written in the moment as the young author lived it. It mostly consists of the author criticizing and complaining about the people around him while detailing his numerous sexual affairs. The second novel was written years after the fact and reimagines our narrator as, basically, a fan-fiction Mary Sue: Someone who has all the answers to everybody’s problems. The movie mostly does away with either interpretation in favor of its own: A smiling kid full of energy, willing to do just about anything to break into film. Colin Clark, as played by Eddie Redmayne, is immediately likable. He’s got a kind of infectious energy about him. The way he forces himself into the movie business, just by sheer wide-eyed determination, is sort of inspiring, in a way.
That energy translates to the direction of the film, too. The opening minutes really drawl you in. The movie starts out feeling like a highly nostalgic, light comedy. The cutting is quick without becoming distracting. If the intention was to put the audience in the mindset of a fresh-faced kid looking to get into the movie business, mission accomplished. Not even a wholly tacked-on, completely unnecessary voiceover can damage that.
Once Michele Williams as Marilyn Monroe enters the film, things take a turn. The movie immediately treats Marilyn as a magical presence. From the first scene of her walking off of a plane, the camera adores her. Michele Williams sells it fantastically with just her body language. She embodies the grace and humor associated with the iconic actress. Williams’ easily suggest Monroe’s natural grace and charisma. It’s hard not to take your eyes off of her. The boy is immediately smitten with her and so is the film. Despite lacking most of Monroe’s signature curves, Williams otherwise perfectly looks the part.
The film quickly establishes Monroe’s vulnerability. She seems unwilling to live up to her own glamorous legacy, though the film goes far out of its way to paint her as nothing but glamorous. She’s a bit chewed-up by the filmmaking process. After building her up into an icon, the film seems to enjoy humanizing her. She forgets her lines, is extremely nervous, uncertain of herself.
A montage of blinking camera flashes is a cheap but totally effective way to visually illustrate the constant attention on the actress. She is painted as someone in constant need of reassuring, a plastic bubble always threatening to break.
Colin quickly falls in love with Marilyn. The production is troubled almost immediately. Director Lawrence Oliver is part of the old school methods of acting, while Monroe is working hard on reinventing herself as a serious actress. Paula Strasberg is by her side everyday on the set and quickly becomes a wedge separating her from the rest of the cast and crew. Trouble boils over further when Monroe’s new husband Arthur Miller leaves town. Soon, young Colin becomes her confident. He feels like he’s the only one that understands her, which is, of course, how everyone feels when falling in love for the first time. Their flirtation reaches it peak during the titular week-long vacation. Colin and Marilyn tour an old castle and go skinny-dipping. More then once, when confronted with a crowd of star struck fans, Monroe slips into her public persona, flirting it up for cameramen or a group of schoolboys. The film certainly toys with the implication that Marilyn is intentionally manipulating Clark, simply using him as a disposable crutch she needed at the moment. There’s enough ambiguity in Williams’ performance that it might be true as well. It adds complexity to the final film, even if it’s mostly implied.
Despite the film’s mostly nostalgic and love-drunk tone, the spectre of Monroe’s inevitable death hangs over the whole thing. Her drug and alcohol abuse aren’t shied away from. She’s frequently late to set and her apartment is full of empty pill bottles. When, looking at old photographs, she says something akin to “I hope I never live to be 400,” it can’t help but be somewhat eerie. She can’t be saved.
Aside from Williams’ ace lead performance, the film’s supporting cast is full of wonderful players as well. Redmayne certainly makes for a likable, relatable lead. Fellow Oscar-nominee Kenneth Branagh lays it on a bit thick at times. However, as the film goes on, he gets better. A pissed-off Branagh is a more entertaining Branagh. His hammed-up moments are the best ones. Judi Dench is father wonderful in a brief role, effortlessly charming. She immediately jumps to defend Marilyn from the at-times overzealous Oliver. Emma Watson plays a role removed enough from her famous Hermione, though not removed from her overly frizzy eyebrows. Her girl next door cuteness is a direct contrast with Monroe’s unattainable beauty. Her role doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond that one. Toby Jones shows up too, but that’s just because Toby Jones has to show up in fucking everything these days.
The ending of the film definitely puts too fine a point on the main theme, as does the movie overall. Additionally, that ending stretches on about ten minutes longer then it should. It’s never a good thing when you’re thinking, “If it ends now, that would be perfect,” and the thing keeps on going. The pre-credits “What happened next” subtitles were completely inessential. Overall, as is frequently the case with Oscar-bait, “My Week with Marilyn” is a pretty decent, pretty good, film that happens to feature an excellent performance. Michele Williams better win Best Actress.