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Entries in My Week with Marilyn [2011] (1)

Saturday
Dec032011

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

More Than Just Our Marilyn Monroe

Sometimes a movie is simply a showcase for an amazing performance. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Though gorgeous and technically flawless, the main reason people went to see those films was because they'd heard about how brilliant the leads were; even today, most fans of those actors in those roles might be hard-pressed to describe plot mechanics--but I guarantee they'd rave about milkshakes and do their best Ledger-esque Joker cackle.

Simon Curtis' My Week with Marilyn is ostensibly another one of those pictures. There's already Oscar buzz for Michelle Williams' turn as Marilyn Monroe, and I'll happily tell anyone who'll listen that she undoubtedly deserves a nod. But I was surprised at how much richer the film is, particularly for fans of 1950s Hollywood, as well as for those interested in the evolution of media.

What? Isn't this the silly drama about Monroe dating some English kid? Nope. It's not that at all. My Week with Marilyn is actually a light, spirited comedy that's punctuated by moments of deep sadness. It's a film about identity as seen through the eyes of three very different artists whose fates collide in a whirlwind seven days.

In 1956, a twenty-three-year-old kid named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) vows to make his mark on the world without the advantages of his family's considerable fortune. He lands a gofer job at Laurence Olivier Productions. Olivier's (Kenneth Branagh) wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), takes a liking to the eager boy and insists that her husband finds him a job. Clark becomes the third-assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film designed to broaden Olivier's screen appeal and showcase Monroe's acting chops.

Monroe shows up with acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), a fierce proponent of the Method who ruffles the feathers of Olivier and his theatre-trained production company. The sex-bomb icon Marilyn dazzles all the men of London with her beauty and coyness, but is consistently late to the set. At work, she flubs lines and questions her character's motivations, leaving everyone to wonder if she's incredibly nervous, incredibly stupid, or drowsy from pills.

One of the coolest aspects of the movie is that screenwriter Adrian Hodges (working from Clark's book) doesn't make up our minds for us. My Week with Marilyn is literally a quick look at a moment in history that's not shaded by hindsight. This is before the Kennedys, before Some Like it Hot. We're presented with Marilyn as the world saw her, a sultry, goofy mystery who seemed conflicted about fame. When she and Colin get close later in the picture, it's not in service of a typical ships-passing-in-the-night story; they never sleep together. Just as this world-shy young man is left with tons of questions and conflicted emotions after his dream girl leaves town, so are we as the credits roll.

It's a bold move that is sure to open up My Week with Marilyn to criticism. True, the characters aren't fleshed out, but I got just enough information to be completely enraptured by their stories. Though I'm in love with the idea of old Hollywood, I'm astonishingly naive about it; I had no idea that Olivier and Leigh were married, nor that Monroe's third husband was Arthur Miller (played here by an unrecognizable Dougray Scott). The second-biggest compliment I can pay Curtis' film is that he made me want to learn more about this cast of characters to whom he'd opened up a beautiful portal.

The highest compliment goes to the decision to cast Williams as the lead (particularly in light of news that Scarlett Johansson was once a contender). It's true that Williams and Monroe don't look a lot alike, but I challenge you to sit through the positively hypnotic opening number and tell me there's not some serious channeling going on. Williams is a knock-out who paints the celebrity bombshell as spunky and vulnerable, a ray of sunshine and a disturbingly dark, self-aware slave to her image. Sometimes, it seems as though she strays into imitation, but this could be her adding another layer to Monroe's already affected facade.

If Williams is nominated this year, Redmayne should definitely get some love in the Supporting Actor category. His strength comes from his ability to carry the picture when the Marilyn character is not in the scene, but to subtly hand over all the heavy-lifting to Williams when it's her time to shine. We've seen the humble-nobody-running-after-celebrities thing before, in movies like Almost Famous. But Redmayne is a new breed of cipher who invites us to look at the world from over Colin's shoulder, while also showing some personality and resilience in his new, challenging adventure.

My one very minor and wholly irrational complaint is that Redmayne is a dead ringer for Courtney Gains, who played the red-headed Satanist in Children of the Corn.*

(Feel free to strike this from the record.)

I realize I'm skipping over the rest of the cast, but I could write for several more hours about things like Branagh's phenomenally sad portrayal of Olivier. One must view it askew to see past the joviality and comedic bluster to fully appreciate how scared the actor (Olivier) is of being a relic. One of My Week with Marilyn's neat under-currents is the changing of the guard in London, with career stage performers craving relevance and glomming onto a medium they don't understand.

Oh, and because this film features more than three British performers, Dame Judi Dench pops up in a supporting role. I rolled my eyes when I saw her in the trailer, but she's wonderful as Dame Sybil Thorndike, an elderly actress who encourages Marilyn to believe in her talent.

My Week with Marilyn is a strange movie. It plays like a compelling slice of gossip recounted by a romantic with a photographic memory. Like gossip, the details may fade in time, but Williams' performance makes a magnificent, indelible impression.

*Outlander!