Where biography is concerned, movies are eminently unreliable. Portraiture is another matter—more beholden to personal expression than to fact, and maybe also more movie-conducive. My Week with Marilyn is not the place to go for a credible biography of Marilyn Monroe, but didn’t we already know that, and wouldn’t something else be nicer anyway?
The subject of My Week with Marilyn is the star-crossed romance of Marilyn Monroe and a young production assistant played by Eddie
Adapted by Adrian Hodges from Colin Clark’s books, TV veteran director Simon Curtis’ film feels slight in a familiar way, as if seeming pitiably shallow were the consensus-mandated Monroe biography boilerplate. The movie lacks plausible narrative tension—its conflict is readymade and perfunctory—but it powers itself by the different kind of tension that arises from watching Michelle Williams sustain so finely detailed an impression for so long. Best to see it as simply a showcase for one more portrait of the alluring screen icon.
The framework: While working for an increasingly exasperated Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in 1957, Monroe gets a brief tour of England from an eager young production assistant (Eddie Redmayne) who also happens to be our discreet first-person narrator. He summarizes the situation with Olivier and Monroe as the case of a great actor and a great movie star wanting to osmose each other’s gifts, but struggling together in a film that won’t do that trick for either of them. (It is called The Prince and the Showgirl, after all.) As for our anecdotist’s relationship with Monroe, that one develops expectedly: he’s helplessly smitten, she’s inadvertently a tease. Touchingly, they manage to treat each other with kindness.
If we can agree that celebrity itself is a laudable and costly talent, we must consider Monroe’s career among the first tests of that axiom. The makers of My Week with Marilyn might have been more adventurous, abandoning the pretense of plot for a more interesting take on this idea, but old-fashioned movie storytelling is their given milieu.
Redmayne is a gracious cipher, just as Judi Dench and Emma Watson are generously forgettable in peripheral supporting roles, along with Julia Ormand and Dougray Scott as variously vexed famous spouses Vivien Leigh and Arthur Miller. Branagh, shrewdly aware of the generational baton-passing that keeps movie glamour going, clearly enjoys himself. But as someone in the film says, “When Marilyn gets it right, you just don’t want to look at anyone else,” and all that really matters here is the extent to which Williams gets it right.
Bodily beauty is not the first association we might make with Williams, who has seemed twiggy and swaddled in recent films. Did she steal this job from a curvier actress? In any case, she has earned it: In good time and in good proportion, we glimpse both the effort required to maintain the Marilyn persona and the reasons why a woman—perhaps any woman—might endure such effort. It’s a good performance not just because it transcends mimicry, but also because it seems like a personal and self-justified investigation. Williams conveys the impression that she’s doing this not just for us, or for Monroe, but for herself as well.