This film has a different flavor from the usual biopic—and it’s delicious, at least for any diehard movie buff. Imagine stepping into a time machine, traveling back to 1956, and getting to eavesdrop on Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier during the famously troubled production of ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. That’s precisely what we do in this enticing film, based on the published diary of Colin Clark (son of the eminent art historian Kenneth Clark), who worked as an assistant to Olivier on that picture.
For the conceit to work, we first have to buy into the idea of Michelle Williams as Marilyn. She and the filmmakers pull this off by opening their movie with a musical number. As Williams sings and dances to “Heat Wave,” we see the familiar Marilyn figure and body language and hear her whispery singing voice. Director Simon Curtis saves his first closeup till the end of the song, when we’re already on the hook, and that seals the deal. If we can believe Williams as the famous sex symbol, we can begin to accept her as the real woman off-camera. What she achieves isn’t mimicry but an absorption of the character that is both persuasive and appealing. It’s easy to see how she manipulated the people around her, whether deliberately or not, and how a wide-eyed young man like Clark (played with just the right touch of naïveté by Eddie Redmayne) would become smitten with her.
Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, seems to be having a field day inhabiting the larger-than-life persona of Laurence Olivier, and if the fabled actor-director was really this grandiose, it must have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall during this particular endeavor.
Screenwriter Adrian Hodges, like the director a veteran of British television, translates Clark’s memoir into a straightforward, well-paced narrative, eschewing the current mania for nonlinear storytelling (thank goodness). The physical recreation of the period, especially as it relates to moviemaking at Pinewood Studios, is impeccable.
In addition, the costarring ensemble is unusually fine. Judi Dench adds a different color to the palette as the exceedingly kind Sybil Thorndike, who played a supporting role in’ The Prince and the Showgirl’, while Julia Ormond evokes some of the grace and fragility of Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh. Having already played one brassy American agent (Swifty Lazar) in Frost/Nixon, Toby Jones has no trouble embodying another, namely Arthur P. Jacobs. Zoë Wanamaker brings Marilyn’s notorious acting coach and protector Paula Strasberg to vivid life, as we’ve read about her in so many published accounts. Dominic Cooper is Monroe’s flustered producing partner, Milton Greene, and Emma Watson plays a hard-working wardrobe mistress who is wooed by Clark, when his time isn’t taken up by Marilyn. Only Dougray Scott, as Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller, doesn’t ring true somehow—beginning with his shaky American accent.
‘My Week With Marilyn’ isn’t revelatory in any way, but its credibility on every level makes it highly entertaining, like reading a juicy show-business book filled with backstage gossip. Michelle Williams deserves all the accolades she’s been receiving, because without her there’s no movie. She convinces us that she is that ravishing, impossible, heartbreaking figure we’ve all read so much about…and makes us wish we could have spent a week with her as Colin Clark did.