Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Week With Marilyn Movie Review

Has there ever been a movie star like Marilyn Monroe? My lifetime doesn’t come anywhere close to any time that she was alive so it’s hard to fully understand the attention that she drew and the madness of her celebrity. All I know is what’s been written about those times and what little I’ve seen of documentary footage of her in crowds. Is it anything like the fervor exhibited over a sighting of Leo, George or Brad? I think there’s a great difference between the way we viewed celebrities then and now. The rarity of bearing witness to something in the private life of a celebrity then is nothing compared to the ubiquity of celebrity gossip, sightings, paparazzi photos and such today. We didn’t know (or feel like we know) celebrities then like we do now. Marilyn’s popularity, however, was about much more than public interest in a movie star. She had qualities most women would have died for: she was beautiful, voluptuous, dazzling, sexy and sultry. She was a true classic star, a fact that Simon Curtis’s debut feature My Week With Marilyn is acutely aware of.

The film relates the allegedly true story of a brief period of time in which Marilyn was in England shooting The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier. I say allegedly because the story is from the perspective of the writer Colin Clark, a young man who worked as an assistant on the film and in 1995 published his diaries of the experience in which he claims to have had a relationship, perhaps not sexual, but certainly more than platonic, with Monroe. Biographical films, particularly Clint Eastwood’s recent J.Edgar could take some cues from My Week With Marilyn about how most effectively to present a historical figure on film without the staid conventions we’ve grown accustomed to. By focusing only on a single series of events during one short time span, Curtis’s film, from a screenplay by Adrian Hodges, remains tight and interesting.

Michelle Williams plays Monroe in a performance that I can only think to describe as perfect. You might expect, and many actors might attempt, imitation of the original. No one else can be Monroe. There are moments that look like mere mimicry, but these come when the character Monroe is herself performing – for the gaggle of reporters peppering her with questions upon her arrival at Olivier’s and Vivien Leigh’s home, for the rolling cameras on the film set, even for her handlers who seem to expect a certain mode of behavior from her. Otherwise Williams’ performance is directed inward, much like the Method employed by Monroe and her teacher Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). She gets at the deep sadness and tremendous insecurity that lies beneath the sunny exterior. She seems to understand innately that no one could feel so comfortable in her own skin with so much attention lavished upon her at every turn.

Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) provides the narration, giving this portrait of the actress a different perspective, coming from a wide-eyed youth with the fantastic ambition to work in the movies. He first edges his way into a job in the offices of Olivier’s production company and is then tasked with finding a suitable place for Monroe to stay during the shoot. Though he won’t admit it, Colin is utterly star-struck by Marilyn and his persistence with Lucy, a costume girl played by Emma Watson, plays out as little more than a manifestation of his desire for the platinum blonde. Impossibly, Marilyn takes a liking to the lad and does things like insist he come to her house and sneak away for an afternoon drive that culminates in a risqué dip in a chilly river, much to the dismay of everyone from Olivier to Marilyn’s hired bodyguard.

To play Olivier, they cast none other than Kenneth Branagh. He’s not quite debonair enough and doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Sir Laurence, but he’s got the speech patterns and diction of the Shakespearean actor down pat. No surprise there as Branagh is Britain’s natural heir to Olivier when it comes to screen adaptations of the Bard’s work. Besides, I can’t think of another actor who could so convincingly deliver a line from The Tempest and have us think of Olivier. His wife, actress Vivien Leigh, is played by Julia Ormond, a thankless role existing only to illustrate the allure Monroe had on all men and the effect of making a middle-aged actress like Leigh feel inadequate before her husband. One of the best roles in the film, rather unsurprisingly, belongs to Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, the elder costar of The Prince and the Showgirl and the one character in the film who is not left speechless in awe of Monroe’s presence. Dench has the gravitas of a seasoned actress to play Thorndike as someone willing to stand up to Olivier in defense of the young and terrified Monroe, who is the victim of Olivier’s scorn on a number of occasions as they clash over acting styles.

The discord between Olivier the traditionalist and Monroe the Method actor really boils down to, as Colin points out, the fact that he is a great actor who wants to be a star while she is a star wanting to be a great actor – that and a little bit of the fact that he also doesn’t know how to handle her stardom. Colin may think he’s capable of handling a woman like that, but at his tender age he doesn’t know what he’s getting into with her. From a distance of several decades, he’s able to tell the story from a vantage point of greater understanding of how his experience with Marilyn, as briefly significant to him as was her career to a generation, affected his growth. 

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