Thursday, November 24, 2011

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn

Williams and Redmayne as Marilyn and Colin
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Based on the Memoir By: Colin Clark
Directed By: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond and Judi Dench

There are certain stars from a bygone era of Hollywood that are difficult to interpret on the silver screen. Imagine actually finding someone who could successfully portray Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor or Paul Newman? Marilyn Monroe was once put into this category -- few dared to try and portray her in a film until now. Some celebrities are just too big and any attempt to give a genuine glimpse at the star will likely come off as little more than imitation. My Week with Marilyn succeeds with some aspects of Monroe's personality, but disappointingly not in other areas.

Based on the 1995 publication of the personal diary of British documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn focuses on how a 23-year-old Colin (Eddie Redmayne) became the third assistant director to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) during the tumultuous production of the 1957 film, The Prince and the Showgirl. A dream job for a film buff like Colin, he recognizes his upcoming opportunity to meet Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) in person will be a dream come true. What he didn't anticipate was the friendship that would blossom between them over a brief period.

The script by Adrian Hodges leaves enough room for Williams to shine, but any chance she had at truly running away with the picture was diminished by the fact that the film frustratingly centres on Colin -- a man who claims to have shared moments of genuine love with the megastar. It's a shame too because Williams will likely prove some naysayers wrong (myself included) who thought she was woefully miscast as the blond bombshell. Although there are moments when Williams stumbles in her performance (she's never entirely convincing as Marilyn, which is disappointing), she does have a couple of lovely, subdued moments -- less silly, flirty Marilyn and more vulnerable Marilyn with tears of disappointment in her eyes.

These glimpses that we do get of Marilyn (albeit through the eyes of the lovesick Colin) is of a beautiful and sad woman who seems in over her head -- things we already knew about Monroe. This inability to bring anything new to the table nearly topples the film in the first half when most of the attention remains focused on the dull Colin.

Williams as Monroe
The underutilized secondary characters who share scenes on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl is a disappointing misuse of its cast. Halfway through the film it's easy to forget Judi Dench was in the picture as Dame Sybil Thorndike and audiences are expected to care that Colin has slighted some nice costume girl named Lucy (Emma Watson) who really, really liked him until Marilyn came along. Julia Ormond, a lovely actress, is, alas, no Vivien Leigh.

That being said, there's an interesting film buried underneath it all -- and this is where My Week with Marilyn improves. There's an early scene that shows what this movie could have been when a script read-through briefly touches on the changing norms in Hollywood during the 1950s in terms of acting technique. Olivier, a legend of the stage, is dumbfounded by the fact that Monroe needs her acting coach Paula Strasberg to work her through the art of a "Method" performance. He struggles to understand why Marilyn can't simply "play pretend" like other actors of his generation. In the same scene, Marilyn stares admiringly at Olivier as he reads through his portion of the script, suggesting she is uncomfortable in her own skin when it comes to acting alongside the longtime pros she respects, like Sir Laurence. Perhaps the film would have benefited more had it actually been about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl and the clashes between Marilyn and Olivier. Both were incredibly insecure actors at the time -- he, because of the changing art of performance on film and her, because she struggled to be taken seriously as an actress on an almost daily basis. Showcasing the incompatibility of these two actors would have allowed Williams and Branagh to really let their talents loose -- both of them had their finest moments in the film occur when they were together.

But, the focus is on the time Colin spent with Marilyn. Oddly enough, what allegedly happened between Colin and Marilyn fails to live up to Colin's over-dramatic narration at the beginning and end of the film. While Colin waxes poetic about how he "understood" Marilyn and how they shared this glorious bond, you realize there was actually very little that was real between them -- only a handful of flirtatious laughs and a couple of spooning sessions after some sight-seeing tours around London.

A woman often defined by her sexuality or the men in her lives, it does her legacy a great disservice to have her relegated somewhat to the background. All those burning questions you may have had about what Marilyn was like when she was away from the cameras still remain largely unanswered in the film.

The film amounts to little more than a lopsided venture that struggles to put both Colin and Marilyn front and centre. The plodding pace (especially in the middle of the film) and heavy-handed direction diminish whatever excitement the film was able to build in certain scenes. More frustrating than enjoyable, the real standouts are Williams and, especially, Branagh -- another instance of a couple of performances being better than the overall finished product. If only the film had been about Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. Marilyn deserved a better picture.


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