You’d have to be pretty brave to take on the role of iconic sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. Thank goodness Michelle Williams seems to have courage to spare. In My Week with Marilyn she embodies the blonde bombshell with a confidence that most young actresses couldn’t even dream of achieving. She has the Marilyn “wiggle” down to a science – achieved, she said, by practicing walking with her knees tied together. She has the Marilyn sparkle – her childlike abandon. And on the flip-side, she evokes the Norma Jean insecurities. The vulnerability and the need to be loved. The desperate desire to be a person of worth. It’s this duality – Marilyn vs. Norma Jean – that elevates Williams’ performance from mere imitation to a deeper representation of a person’s humanity.
My Week with Marilyn is not a Marilyn biopic – it’s more of a Marilyn snippet. A glimpse into a period of her life as seen through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young, eager third-assistant director on her film The Prince and the Showgirl, which began filming in London in 1956. The story is based on Colin’s diary from that time in his life, and includes his observations of the star as she allows him to get close to her and as he becomes more and more infatuated with her.
The film is mainly split between on-set antics and off-set moments. On set, Colin watches wide-eyed as the film’s director and star, Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), butts heads with the difficult Marilyn. Olivier fumes as she shows up late, brings along her own “acting coach” of questionable credibility, and botches her lines time and again. The Prince and the Showgirl was notorious for its tumultuous on-set atmosphere, mainly due to the fact that Olivier and Marilyn just didn’t understand each other. He admired her vivacity and innate talent, to be sure, and Marilyn respected and was intimidated by his serious acting background. But even that couldn’t break the ice between them. Olivier was reportedly so fed up by his Prince and the Showgirl experience, that he never directed another film again.
But here’s the thing, when Marilyn got it right, boy did she get it right. There was no denying her charm – even Olivier could see it.
Off set, Marilyn had a whole other set of problems, and we see Colin as he slowly becomes privy to them. Her recent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller is already on the downslide, she’s clearly addicted to alcohol and pills, and she’s surrounded by enablers. There are moments when Williams is able to show the needy, fragile and troubled girl underneath the star sheen, and I’m glad the movie didn’t shy away from that.
And speaking of the star sheen, Williams’ makeup, hair and styling is impeccable – and quite a necessary element when you’re
playing someone who was so stylized in her public persona. The scene that best illustrates this is when Colin and Marilyn are confronted by paparazzi during a spontaneous outing. She turns casually to Colin and asks, “Shall I be ‘her’?” and just like that, she “turns on” Marilyn Monroe
– sexy swaying, playful winking and all. “Playing” Marilyn Monroe
was perhaps her greatest role, but that ease of switching gears was also probably her downfall. She opens up to Colin at one point, admitting that all the men in her life see her as “Marilyn Monroe
,” and once they figure out that’s not really who she is, they leave.
The film on a whole is not spectacularly original. A young man falls for a beautiful woman completely out of his grasp, learns some life lessons, comes of age. He forgoes a pretty, pert costume assistant (Emma Watson) to chase Marilyn’s affections and in the end gets his heart broken. But the audience doesn’t really care about Colin – at least not when he’s sharing the screen with the magnetic Williams. She pulls focus, much like Marilyn did in all of her films, and she’s marvelous to behold.
Bookended by two sensational song and dance numbers seamlessly performed by Williams, My Week with Marilyn reaffirms Marilyn Monroe’s timeless appeal – and solidifies that same quality in the radiant Michelle Williams.
Colin Clark, an employee of Sir Laurence Olivier’s, documents the tense interaction between Olivier and Marilyn Monroe during production of The Prince and the Showgirl.