Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maybe a week with Marilyn wasn't enough

Michelle Williams does nice work in My Week With Marilyn, but the movie comes up short.

The main reason you might want to see My Week With Marilyn -- which is a bit of an anecdote passing as a feature-length movie -- centers on the work of Michelle Williams. Williams offers a mixture of fully realized performance and unrestrained glamor as Marilyn Monroe, capturing the Hollywood sex goddess during days in England when she was filming The Prince and the Showgirl under the direction of the esteemed Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).

Here's how we know what went on: An avid film enthusiast named Colin Clark (a real person) worked as a third assistant director (read lackey) on the production. Clark evidently developed a week-long relationship with Monroe in which she both relied on him and toyed with his affections. Clark, who went on to become a documentary filmmaker, wrote a couple of books about his experiences tagging after Monroe.

If Williams makes a convincing Monroe, the same can't be said for Branagh, who suggests Olivier (the cast of the mouth, the delivery of lines), but obviously can't manage to look like him. And, yes, it bothered me because the movie's make-up people went to great lengths to turn Williams into a Monroe look-alike.

Director Simon Curtis, working from a script by Adrian Hodges, brings too little interpretive savvy to the proceedings, and Eddie Redmayne (through no fault of his own) can't make a memorable character out of a star-struck young man who's in love with the movies. On screen, Clark comes off as a bit of a cliche, a wide-eyed kid who has run away to join the show-business circus.

Some of the supporting performances are good. The always impressive Judi Dench gives a nicely shaded performance as the kindly Dame Sybil Thorndike, and it's nice to see Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) given a chance to do something other than react to special effects. She has a small role as a young woman working in wardrobe. Watson's Lucy clearly would make a more suitable companion for Clark than Monroe, who at the time was married to playwright Arthur Miller, played here by Dougray Scott.

And I particularly enjoyed Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Monroe's Method-oriented acting coach who contributed mightily to Olivier's massive frustration. Olivier didn't want to Monroe to plumb the depths of her character; he simply wanted her to get on with it.

A film about Monroe -- a complicated and often troubled woman who may have been both oppressed and nourished by her status as a sex symbol -- would have been most welcome, and the gifted Williams clearly was up to the task.

But My Week With Marilyn sums up what's interesting about itself in one very incisive line of dialogue: Monroe was a star who wanted to be taken seriously as an actor; and Olivier (who also starred in Prince and the Showgirl) was a revered actor who wanted to be a star. They couldn't help but clash.

That's a revealing observation, but insufficient to sustain an entire movie. My Week With Marilyn simply isn't big enough to accommodate a star of Monroe's magnitude

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