Photo: Laurence Cendrowicz/ The Weinstein Company
Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, and Emma Watson. 99 minutes. 14A.
Let’s start with the obvious: Michelle Williams looks very little like Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn was a bombshell: glamourous, voluptuous, with an hourglass figure (although reports she wore a size 16 dress have been somewhat overstated), and a delicate, heart-shaped face. Michelle Williams is a waif: cute rather than gorgeous, stick-thin (the padding Williams wore holds no candle to Marilyn’s curves), with a full-cheeked round face. Physically speaking, the only thing the two women really seem to have in common is their blonde hair.
Luckily, Michelle Williams is extremely talented. After the initial inevitable physical comparison in her first scenes, we forget any doubt we may have had about Williams. In ways that go beyond physicality, Williams captures the spirit of Marilyn Monroe beautifully, and the physical dissimilarities fade away. Williams’ performance is mesmerizing. Which is a very good thing for this movie, since the protagonist is predictable and flat, and the excellent supporting cast is underutilized. Ultimately, though, we couldn’t care less about the protagonist, or the supporting characters. All we really care about is Marilyn.
My Week with Marilyn takes place in 1956, during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, in which Marilyn played opposite Sir Laurence Olivier (Branagh) in a role made famous onstage by Vivien Leigh (Ormond), of Gone With the Wind fame. Monroe was at the very height of her fame, newly married to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and very serious about being a serious actress, immersing herself in “the Method.” However, her emotional insecurities led to conflicts on set and in her personal life.
A major theme in the film is the divide between Marilyn the person, and Marilyn the persona. She laments, “All they see is Marilyn Monroe, and when they find out I’m not her, they leave.” Later on, before making an impromptu appearance to staff at Windsor Palace, she asks, “Shall I be her?” before launching into what can only be described as a “bit.” The Marilyn persona is where Williams truly sparkles, but playing that part seems to both depress and exhilarate Marilyn the person. This divide comes with a set of expectations and misunderstandings about who Marilyn Monroe really is that no one character in the film seems to truly avoid. The protagonist thinks he knows Marilyn better than the other characters, but he just projects his own expectations and desires onto her, as all the others do. He flatters himself to think that his desires are different than those of the others, more pure perhaps, but I’m not so sure about that.
One line about midway through really made me think. In an argument with Olivier about the character she is playing, in which she struggles to express why she doesn’t relate to or understand the character (a hallmark of “the Method”), Monroe says in exasperation, “She’s not real!” It struck me, once again, how difficult it is for me, as a woman, to connect with most of the female characters I see in films—they aren’t real. (This is why so many women critics, writers, and viewers were so excited about Bridesmaids this past summer—the characters and their portrayals felt genuine to us, like real women that we know.) It also struck me how difficult it must be for actors to portray these unreal female characters with any integrity for their craft. Female characters in film tend to be stereotypes and tropes, and their role in the story is so often to act as a vehicle for the personal development of the male characters.
In that respect, My Week with Marilyn was not so different, as the protagonist was not Monroe but the young man who has a brief but life-changing romance with the most famous woman in the world. Thankfully, however, Williams had a truly interesting and complex character, with her individual set of motivations, emotions, and demons, to work with. And she played it—the role of a lifetime, really—beautifully.
All in all, My Week with Marilyn survives on its star performance, and its success as a period piece, with gorgeous replicas of famous outfits worn by Monroe and Olivier. (I will admit to darkening my eyebrows and sweeping my eyeliner outward just a little bit afterwards.) Go see it for Marilyn’s glamour, but stay for Michelle’s tremendous talent. I’m going out on a limb, on the record, and predicting she’ll win both a Golden Globe and an Oscar this year. A- (at least 3 letter grades of which come from Williams’ performance alone)
By: Jennifer Simpson
Films I love: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Fargo, Being John Malkovich, Melancholia, Volver, Juno