Following on from the planet-conquering success of The King’s Speech, it was always a fairly safe bet that Hollywood uber-producers the Weinstein brothers would seek to replicate the enormous financial remuneration they’d achieved with similarly frugal fare. The result of their shrewd business sense is My Week With Marilyn, another low-budget Brit semi-biopic with eyes clearly fixed on awards season.
Esteemed television director Simon Curtis and Primeval and Survivor screenwriter Adrian Hodges have adapted Colin Clark’s book, which belatedly described the hitherto untold true story of his tumultuous nine days within the hectic social sphere of Marilyn Monroe – then, arguably, the most famous woman on the planet.
It’s 1956, and the 23-year-old Clark (Eddie Redmayne), eschewing his wealthy father’s wishes, follows his dream to find a way in to the movie business. As must be the way when hailing from aristocratic stock, Colin has little trouble finding work, quickly landing a job at Sir Lawrence Olivier’s prestigious production company as third assistant director of his upcoming picture.
The 50 year-old Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), in a deliberate effort to rejuvenate his career, has wooed Monroe (a startlingly uncanny Michelle Williams) across the pond to direct and star alongside her in his big-screen adaptation of The Prince And The Showgirl. The exuberance and cinematic joie de vivre that came so effortlessly in his youth long depleted, Olivier hopes Monroe – through some form of youthful osmosis – will reinvigorate his passion and cinematic standing.
He also desires to sleep with her, yet his plans have been somewhat scuppered by Monroe’s recent high-profile marriage to famous playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).
Marilyn touches down in Blighty amidst a barrage of frenzied media coverage. Hacks and paparazzi swarm avariciously, yet Marilyn is the consummate professional in her dealings with them, batting their intrusions away with easy wit and playfully suggestive charm. To Olivier’s increasing consternation, this same level of professional conduct doesn’t extend to her work.
He hoped to snuggle her within the chummy bosom and endless “Yes, daaahling”s of the British acting fraternity, yet Monroe is a student of Stanislavsky’s method – a way of working poles apart from Olivier’s classical training – and insists on Zoë Wannamaker’s overbearing, maternal acting coach being present at all times, effectively co-directing her.
That this drives Olivier to distraction is no surprise, yet the fact that – in her increased isolation from her classically trained co-star – she would find companionship with Clark, the production’s ‘gopher’ (‘go for this’ and ‘go for that’: general film set dogsbody) is. None are more star struck than he, yet he is honest with her, and she finds this refreshing enough to include him in dealings at levels high above his modest station.
Crippled by crises of confidence, a dependence on drink and pills and constant exposure to her sycophantic entourage, she is not the altogether image of perfection her onscreen persona suggests. Williams’ Monroe spouts all the ‘gee’s and ‘phooey’s you would expect, yet this multifaceted Monroe oscillates between wide-eyed childlike wonder, lens-conditioned sexuality and fragile, melancholic emotional turmoil.
It really is a remarkable turn from Williams, who perfectly echoes Monroe’s ability to flip from private vulnerability to public invulnerability with the flick of an internal switch: one minute a megastar, the next a servile pawn in everyone else’s designs.
The film is not a miserable dissection of fame, however. The introspective moments are far outweighed by the lighter ones, the majority of which come at the hands of Branagh’s increasingly Meldrewian outrage. Branagh’s Olivier (complete with his balletically inflected lilt) gets the majority of the film’s best lines: coarse zingers, rich in fruity and rambunctious stiff-upper-lipped profanity.
This Olivier is perhaps presented more favourably than the real one was in reality (Olivier famously said of Marilyn, many years after her death, “She was a bitch…”), yet Branagh’s inch-perfect delivery almost single-handedly carries the entire comedic side of the film.
The affection for the period and the characters that occupy it is forever apparent. This idealised England that doesn’t really exist anymore: green grassland; vibrant colour; bicycles with baskets; houses with thatched roofs; Norman Wisdom – all present and rose-tinted beneath a knee-slapping 50s big-band accompaniment.
The supporting cast, full of big names, portrays the folk of the time as amiable, edgeless types too. Judi Dench is positively huggable as Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Julia Ormond is endlessly patient as Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh, while Toby Jones and Philip Jackson are perfectly and symmetrically avuncular.
Redmayne’s Clark is a likeable, naive lead. His growing devotion to Monroe comes at a price, and he is forced to choose between this and a burgeoning romance with wardrobe assistant Lucy (Emma Watson) while walking the perilous professional tightrope of having allegiances to two separate factions within the production.
Yet Monroe herself never quite strays far enough away from the Aphrodite-lite image of her we all have. We see her break down, but not unravel, and she touches briefly on her past yet never reveals enough backstory to make us invest completely in her. Yes, the film is based on Clark’s account, but for the sake of the film, Monroe’s character could have done with a little more peeling back. The film is left with an air of inescapable tweeness, which is entirely watchable if a little inconsequential.
It does occasionally become as farcical as the film-within-a-film whose production we are witnessing, and while the trailer might have you believing this is a dissection of Monroe’s fame and flawed character, the reality is that it’s a whimsical fish-out-of-water comedy with sufficient dramatic excursions to pull it back down to a critically favourable performance piece.
Were it not a true story, it would be difficult to believe it was possible for someone like Clark to go from anonymity to the social circles of superstars within a matter of days, yet it happened, and as such, this is an adequately interesting story to warrant its telling.
Yet one feels that there are more interesting tales to be told about Monroe: her string of famous partners, her spiralling drink and drug abuse (which is present here, albeit without any real resolution), and her untimely death.
There are some great performances, with Michelle Williams in particular likely to receive plaudits aplenty, yet it’s all too harmless to resonate on any levels besides the superficial entertainment value it provides so admirably. My Week With Marilyn is therefore a pleasant and diverting comedic romp, but little more. It’s a couple of hours with a group of colourful characters it is in no way a chore to be in the company of.