New on DVD: My Week with Marilyn (2011)

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An actress portraying Marilyn Monroe faces the same daunting obstacles as an actor playing Jesus.

No matter how good your performance, it pales in comparison to the real thing.

Michelle Williams, one of our finest young actresses, does a perfectly credible job as the immortal blonde sex symbol in My Week with Marilyn, a melodrama unfolding during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in London in 1957.

But as good as Williams is, not once are you likely to mistake her for Marilyn. It’s a passable impersonation, but no one will ever fill the screen the way Monroe did.

Simon Curtis' feature directing debut (after a long career in television) is based on The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, Colin Clark’s memoirs about his experiences as a young production assistant on the film.

When we first meet Colin (Eddie Redmayne), he’s a directionless young fellow — well educated, well to do, and pretty much lost.

But Colin has an artistic bent and decides to virtually camp out in out in the lobby of Sir Laurence Olivier’s production offices until he gets noticed. His minor-keyed obnoxiousness works. Sir Laurence (Kenneth Branagh) takes him on as a lowly gofer.

All of Great Britain is abuzz with the arrival of Marilyn (Williams) and her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).

But the thrill soon wears off when it becomes all too obvious that the starlet is a mess who keeps her coworkers waiting for hours while her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) tries to talk her down from the emotional ledge on which she is perpetually perched.

For Olivier — who regards acting as something you do, not something you obsess about — this is the height of unprofessional behavior.

When Miller returns to the States (he needs a vacation from his new spouse), a needy Marilyn turns to young Colin to be her sounding board, confidant, and shoulder to cry on.

Though presumably based on fact, Clark’s story conveniently embraces all the cliches of the backstage genre. Among them is the costume girl (a post-Harry Potter Emma Watson) whom Colin betrays as soon as Marilyn crooks a finger in his direction.

My Week... is crammed with tasty little performances from Julia Ormand (as Olivier’s in-decline wife, Viven Leigh), Michael Kitchen, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Jim Carter, Derek Jacobi, and especially Judi Dench (as veteran actress Sybil Thorndike, who recognizes in Marilyn an on-screen truthfulness that not all the acting classes on Earth can duplicate).

Redmayne’s Colin is less a compelling character than an observer. Which unfortunately leaves the film with a vacant spot smack dab in the middle.

Whatever success the film enjoys can be credited to Williams, whose Marilyn is seductive, maddening, and pathetically sad, a child-woman whose emotional neediness is nearly as awesome as her sex appeal.

There are moments when — in the right light and especially in a couple of musical/dance numbers — Williams does look uncannily like Marilyn. But they don’t come often enough.

What’s really disappointing here is the film’s tonal inconsistency. There are moments when Branagh seems to be going for comedy in expressing Olivier’s frustration with his leading lady, but director Curtis doesn’t know what to do with it. He fails to either integrate or effectively contrast these moments with the essential tragedy of Marilyn’s condition. Is this supposed to be a study of a woman with crippling emotional baggage? Or a lightweight stage door comedy?

My Week with Marilyn neither makes a choice nor successfully balances those two extremes.

The result offers some modest entertainment, and a whole lot of superficiality.

 

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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