"My Week With Marilyn" is exactly the type of tolerably superficial crowdpleaser that it looks like. Lacking the meaty role she may have hoped for, Michelle Williams delivers an airy interpretation of Marilyn Monroe without digging too deep into the persona. Her one-note performance matches a movie less invested in the reality of the material than style of it, not pulling back the veil on Monroe but smothering it to death with the familiar polish of a tame show business comedy.
[This review was originally published during the 49th New York Film Festival. The Weinstein Company opens "My Week With Marilyn" this Friday, November 25.]
Like Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles," the movie makes an enthusiastic attempt to study classic Hollywood yore from the perspective of a little known crew member. However, "My Week With Marilyn" lacks the same focused wit. Loosely adapted from documentarian and writer Colin Clark's diary-style memoir from the set of the 1956 Laurence Olivier-directed British production of "The Prince and the Showgirl," the story follows the 23-year-old Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as a plucky assistant director on the set who falls for a high maintenance Monroe . While the actress' diva-like manner quickly gets under the skin of her prickly director (Kenneth Branaugh), Clark slowly gains her trust and eventually becomes her closest confidante. Unsurprisingly, he discovers a much sadder person behind the fancy poses and lipstick. However, "My Week With Marilyn" paradoxically takes the form of a simplistic romantic comedy, obscuring the bleak drama at its center. Even when Williams-as-Monroe tears up, the movie maintains an oddly cheerful demeanor.
The prospects of any actress, even a usually dexterous one like Williams, meeting the expectations of the role while moving beyond them makes for a near impossible task. The first feature from British television director Simon Curtis, "My Week With Marilyn" generally takes the form of a screwball comedy based around Monroe's constant unwillingness to play by Olivier's rules by forgetting her lines or dashing off-set in the face of criticism from the director. But the script lands only the most basic laughs, failing to dig into the mystique surrounding its subject. While the movie goes through conventional motions, Williams has little to do save for offering her best Marilyn voice and grin.
Monroe's iconography has merged into a unified identity held together by her entire filmography. In "My Week With Marilyn," however, she's a cheap impression of that personality, whether haplessly seducing the wide-eyed Clark by leading him away from the spotlight to go skinny dipping or feuding with disinterested husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). The running gag about the 30-year-old star's ability to turn Clark into her play thing gets old fast, while a peripheral development involving Clark's romance with a costume girl (Emma Watson) falls by the wayside.
There are a few directions the narrative could take–a shrewder period piece about Monroe, or something more believable involving Clark's close encounter with the dangers of the limelight–and they occasionally stumble into view. The older actresses surrounding Monroe, including a measured Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) and Olivier wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) both provide intriguing contrasts to Monroe's relative inexperience. Clark's ongoing willingness to go against Olivier's wishes and offer counsel to Monroe maintains a certain witty appeal, although the depressed pill-popper he discovers behind closed doors is a fundamentally uninspired interpretation of the actress' notorious addiction. Williams usually does intense better than she does sultry, but the script calls for neither quality in any particularly insightful fashion. "They don't understand you," Clark tells the actress, and neither does "My Week With Marilyn."
criticWIRE grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A now-typical awards season bid from The Weinstein Company, "My Week With Marilyn" is bound to land mixed reviews but has enough commercial potential to give it legs for Oscar campaign based around Williams' performance. However, neither the material nor the role are consequential enough to secure her a victory.