Williams’ Monroe elevates inconsistent biopic
For her turn in the film “My Week with Marilyn,” Michelle Williams has nabbed over 30 nominations and 13 wins, including her recent win for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy at the Golden Globes. No argument here. As Marilyn Monroe, Williams has never been more buoyantly charming or more desperately fragile. In a year full of great actors playing great historical figures (Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar,” Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady” etc.), Williams’ performance is one of this year’s best, a deft portrayal of the bombshell and the erratic woman inside that carries this sometimes inconsistent movie.
The film follows the 1956 British production of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” a light romantic comedy directed by Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), and starring “the most beautiful woman on the planet,” as one reporter eagerly notes. Monroe arrives with her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and method acting coach Paula (Zoe Wanamaker), in tow, and quickly lives up to both her reputations — to the adoring press, a giggling goddess; to the cast and crew, a self-doubting schoolgirl and drug-addled mess, perpetually late and flustered. She’s the girl that every man wants to save; her husband, who admits he feels “consumed by her;” Olivier, the quick-tempered director that had once played with the idea of making Monroe his mistress; and the helplessly doe-eyed Colin Clark, the third assistant director who quickly falls into a romance with the emotional beauty.
Branagh is perfect as the frustrated, self-important Olivier, who adds some much-needed humor to an often plodding script. This movie was oddly nominated in the Musical/Comedy category at the Golden Globes, and the only discernible reason I can see is Branagh. Olivier is prone to cutting sarcasms and long Shakespeare monologues, which he speaks into his dressing room mirror as he applies stage makeup.
His scenes with Williams are the best in the film. Both actors received Academy Award nominations for their performances, and any scene featuring the two together proves why; his domineering pontifications triggering her keen vulnerability after he asks her why she can’t just “shut up and be sexy”; the way she directs a well-timed shimmy just at him during their first press conference together.
Terrific performances aside, the movie does have several cloying stumbling blocks. Centered around a memoir by Colin Clark, a British documentary filmmaker who served as an assistant on Monroe’s “The Prince and the Showgirl” (when he wasn’t servicing the star in other ways), the source material has been called out by various media outlets as being factually shaky, at best. The young Clark (Eddie Redmayne) has very few discernible personality traits besides being “sweet” and “adorably naive.”
Of course, the real star of “My Week” is and should be Marilyn, but it wouldn’t hurt to have her romantic interest be developed as more than an emotional napkin. But he’s just there to give hugs and look pretty, for which the script gives him ample scenes to do. Their “romance” is a clunky plot device, and its eventual end is not really a climax so much as a speed bump. A really lame speed bump. Bummer.
The film wastes a number of good actors, including the aforementioned Scott, Judi Dench, plus Dominic Cooper and Toby Jones as Monroe’s snarky handlers. Why is Hermione even in this movie, when all Emma Watson’s stagehand does is hold clothes and pout after Colin. There’s too much going on, and director Simon Curtis knows it, so he speeds through all these extra characters’ plot lines in a messy surge to get the camera back on Williams, and face it, that’s who we all came to see.
Still, the movie as a whole is a solid one. Besides impeccable performances all-around, the story moves quickly and enjoyably, and offers a few new, insightful perspectives on the politics of moviemaking in the 50s. Though at times “My Week With Marilyn” is structured more as a character study than a narrative, when you’re studying Marilyn Monroe, I don’t really have many complaints.