By Alan Mattli
In 1956, the legendary Marilyn Monroe went to England to shoot the movie The Prince and the Showgirl in which she was to act alongside Sir Laurence Olivier, who was then considered to be the greatest actor alive. While filming, she allegedly had an affair with Olivier’s third assistant, Colin Clark, who subsequently wrote in much detail about his experiences with the famous actress. In his new film, My Week with Marilyn, which was nominated for two Oscars and won various other awards, director Simon Curtis picks up on Clark’s story but offers us something more: a genuinely heartfelt, thoroughly fascinating look at Marilyn Monroe and her role as a cultural icon.
If you’re a Clark, you should aim for, and ultimately achieve, greatness, the college graduate and former Etonian Colin (the splendid Eddie Redmayne) tells us. So naturally, his intentions to take up work in the film industry don’t correspond with his parents’ ideas of an appropriate vocation. But since they don’t interfere, Colin is free to leave home and move to London where he tries to get a job in the new production by Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). After some desperate attempts, he is hired as third directing assistant, a job consisting mostly of fetching things. Soon, however, the gofer proves to be a valuable asset. While Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), freshly married to the playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), annoys almost everyone on the set – including director and male lead Olivier, excluding the veteran actress Sibyl Thorndike (a graceful Judi Dench) – with her naïvely erratic behaviour and her infamous tardiness, she takes a shine to him, which allows him to become her confidant. But although he calms her down, which greatly pleases Olivier, other people are not as happy; for instance Monroe’s business partner Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), her acting coach Paula (Zoë Wanamaker), and the wardrobe girl Lucy (Emma Watson), whom he courted at the start of the production.
We’ve all heard or read the stories about how the definitive incarnation of the “blonde bombshell” acted on set: how she famously could remember three pages of complicated dialogue on a good day, but couldn’t recall a one-word-utterance on a bad one; how being three hours late for a shooting appointment was the norm; how upset she’d be if anyone talked to her in an unfriendly manner; and how she would leave the set on the spot when something wasn’t to her liking. And of course, we all know that she died tragically in 1962, aged 36. So is there anything a lighthearted biographical film like My Week with Marilyn can teach us? It turns out there is; Simon Curtis sportively plays with the common knowledge about arguably the biggest star Hollywood has ever produced. He and author Adrian Hodges don’t portray Monroe as a misunderstood or misjudged genius, acting or otherwise, but they do explore what it means to be the person to silence a room, to be the “most famous woman in the world”, as one character puts it, thus giving the popular image of her a little more depth while at the same time celebrating her iconic side.
In staging and writing, Curtis and Hodges uncover a woman who is overwhelmed and overburndened by her status but knows exactly how she can use it – that fatal mixture of naïveté and cunning Monroe played in films as well as in real life. We see her as someone who is excited to be the centre of attention but simultaneously plagued by the fact that practically every person in the western world knows her. Hodges incorporates this in his story, which, sadly, is a bit on the fordable side, rather well. When Colin asks her to see the sights England has to offer, she sighs/smiles and remarks in her trademark declarative tone: “I am the sights!”. The sad thing is, of course, that she’s right. But still, there is also Monroe’s cheerful side, her good days, her lust for life and spontaneity, which led to her multiple marriages in the first place. It takes an actress of egregious talent to play this unique character convincingly and the filmmakers found her in Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine). My Week with Marilyn abounds in standout performances, be it Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, or the regal Kenneth Branagh playing the man one may well call his precursor. But Williams’ Oscar-nominated performance is definitely one for the ages. She doesn’t much resemble Monroe, she doesn’t come from the same background but she is pitch perfect in the role. She gives a brilliant performance that is simply astonishing, literally radiant – the spotlight is on her in every appearance, which sets her apart from the other characters and gives her the necessary glow. Her balance between innocence and sexual seduction is spot-on and she makes us feel, like she makes Colin feel, that we know her and that we see the “real” Marilyn – just like the real one did in her lifetime with her performances.
One of the most surprising things about the endlessly arresting, oftentimes funny My Week with Marilyn is that it refrains from mentioning her death in the end. A text lets the viewer know what Colin did after the “affair”, how Laurence Olivier returned triumphantly to the theatre after the production of The Prince and the Showgirl, and how Monroe’s next film role was in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, her most successful engagement. Her tragic demise doesn’t feature because in the end, it is somewhat inconsequential. She is an icon and icons never die – even if it was this knowledge that fueled her crippling depression. Cruel life, wonderfully put to film.
★★★★½ (out of six)