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My Week With Marilyn

December 1, 2011

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe tottered along to Pinewood Studios to make a mostly dreadful light comedy, The Prince & The Showgirl, starring with and directed by Sir Laurence Olivier. It was a notoriously tense shoot, although in a terribly clipped, RP, Keep Calm And Carry On, uptight British way rather than some hellfire Apocalypse Now conflagration. Marilyn and Larry did not gel, she – waylaid by pills and booze and crippling insecurities – was always late and spectacularly flaky, he was controlling, unsympathetic and frustrated by his advancing years and the realisation that here, finally, was a co-star he would never be able to seduce.

In the wings, the young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), fresh out of Cambridge and overshadowed by his ‘family of overachievers’ (father Kenneth, Civilisation; brother Alan, Diaries and serial-rogering) arrives in London to find a career in the movies. He ends up as the dogsbody on the production and, to the astonishment of everyone, not least himself, drifts into a confidante-and-possibly-more relationship with Monroe (Michelle Williams) herself.

It needs to be said as early as possible that that’s basically it, plotwise. A few stolen hours, one magical day, and some very tremulous, hesitant canoodling aside, almost nothing happens beyond what we must surely already know; that despite her crushing weaknesses and debilitating outside influences, Marilyn turns in a winning performance on a lesser movie (almost her least, really) and then goes home. And that incrementally slight, almost boring procession of one thing happening after another presents us with a first half hour that may have you wondering just what it is you’ve handed over your money to watch.

Admittedly, it is all done with precision. Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier (how irritated do you think he would be to not play it?) is an exceptional clone, a pitch perfect reconstruction of mannerisms, presence and sinister sibilant S’s. Dame Judi does Dame Sybil (Thorndike) to a knowing T, and Philip Jackson, the finest of all our small-part TV actors, turns in a terrifically touching performance as Marilyn’s dependable and warmhearted minder. There is much period detail, of course, including splendidly accurate establishment accents and cultural nods that nod toward the most telling of research. And it’s all a little stagey and clinical and empty of purpose. For that first act, where the scenario of the possibly chaste tryst is sketched out, it seems that despite the patina of authenticity beyond it, there may be nothing.

It does not help that the first voice we hear, Colin’s, as a bland and characterless narrator, is hopelessly lacking in colour.

But, as with Marilyn in her performance on the movie, these first unappealing missteps are forgotten after one sparkling moment which leads, carefully and inexorably on, to another. And another. Sent to collect Marilyn from her dressing room, Colin finds her addled and dreamily incapable, a vulnerable girl lost and alone. From here, the film shifts not into another gear, but into another movie altogether. The paper-thin story developments continue as mere noises off, and it slides into a mood piece, a character-led drama that shines a light into Marilyn’s darker corners.

I have been avoiding mentioning Williams’s performance until now, but only because I struggle to quantify it on the page. Marilyn has been portrayed dozens of times of course, but I don’t think anyone has ever managed to capture all of her, as Williams somehow, magically, manages. Skittish, funny, mischievous, infuriating, weak and also quite brilliant: at first – and this is surely intentional, to put you in Olivier’s position of being annoyed and disappointed – she is almost inconsequential. A figure of fun bordering on derision, once Colin speaks to her, and she recognises within him someone with whom she can communicate, it is at that point that we get an inkling of the many faces of Marilyn.

Oh, that’s such a lazy phrase. I apologise.

You see, Williams pulls off a remarkable trick. Marilyn, ‘they said’, glowed. She was a star at the end of the time of stars. We’ve lost that, we don’t really know about it any more. We’ve battered down and reduced people to the mere status of celebrities and Marilyn wasn’t part of that; and Williams knows it. She glows too, she’s luminous and alight and she shines all over the second half of the film. Even at her most needy, awry with pills and drink (the camera shifts around her bedroom, pinpointing the chemical trip hazards that kept her reliant on certain people), she shimmers with an attraction that goes beyond the sexual. Does Colin what to make love to her, or does he just want to be in love for her? She reaches out, and he responds because he can’t do anything else. Helpless, in her tractor beam, he is pulled hither and thither and, as much an ingenue in her world of cracked relationships as she, they stagger toward a minor but deeply affecting heartache.

He sees her only a few times, but in the middle of their encounters is one day where they walk in the country, as if they were lovers, and have, what sweethearts would call, an adventure. At the end, driving back as the sun goes down, the light slanting through the car window, first tenderly holding hands and then – as they look out, at the real world – letting go, Nat King Cole sings Autumn Leaves and the swelling strings are almost unbearable.

Williams takes Marilyn away beyond Colin, then. Beyond us, somewhere untouchable and extraordinary. As she realises she cannot be anything more to him she is as harsh and cruel as she needs to be, as she can bare to be, and with what seems, but isn’t, a wave of her hand, snaps his heart in two. His realisation later, that she could have done it no other way, is bittersweet and touching.

At the end, Olivier and Colin watch The Prince & the Showgirl and the great man suddenly sees the brilliant actress behind the troubles and he gasps. Later, he would say that she was, “the best of all”. What Michelle Williams does here is make us believe that too.

x10 for Williams

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Chamow permalink
    December 9, 2011 8:34 am

    It’s a hard sell. But I might give it a chance.

    Kevin Chamow

  2. Charlie permalink
    March 13, 2012 3:59 pm

    *All I can say is that Tom Cruise married the wrong girl.

    Let me take you back to 1998,Dawson’s Creek, Joey (Katie Holmes) vs Jen (Michelle Williams). Everyone I ever met liked Joey (including Tom). I was always the odd one out favouring Jen.

    For that reason alone I will watch this film.

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