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Toward the end of My Week with Marilyn, which had its world premiere at the 49th New York Film Festival, Miss Monroe (Michelle Williams) addresses the crew of her movie The Prince and the Showgirl in apologetic fashion, saying, “I’d like you to remember I tried.” This is the moment when director Simon Curtis inadvertently breaks the fourth wall — Williams may as well be speaking to us.
To Williams’ credit, she really does try to embody the icon, getting the voice and mannerisms close enough. But even in the first scene, which features Monroe in on-screen performance, surrounded by enamored men, the cringe-worthy, obvious enhancements to her curves — sequins don’t exactly hide butt and hip pads — suggest what the next 100 minutes confirm: Williams is merely playing dress-up.
My Week with Marilyn is based on author Colin Clark’s The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set with Marilyn and Olivier, which details the then 23-year-old’s first job in Hollywood, as third assistant director on the set of Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl. In My Week with Marilyn, Clark is played by Eddie Redmayne, who’s convincing enough as the wide-eyed youth, silently observing the inner workings of a major production. Olivier is both lead actor and director of The Prince and the Showgirl, with Monroe brought on as glorified eye candy. A clash of personalities ensues, and Clark is caught in the middle, pulled into Monroe’s substantial star-powered vortex in the process.
My Week with Marilyn is a revolving door of notable actors, with Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier serving as one of the few saving graces of an otherwise bland movie. His comedic delivery as the egotistical Olivier, frustrated by Monroe’s capricious presence on set, is a joy to watch. Julia Ormond as his wife Vivien Leigh is wonderful as well, making the most of her limited screen time by imparting a quiet, sad, somewhat biting strength to her role. Judi Dench, always solid, gives actress Dame Sybil Thorndike a maternal, albeit forgettable, spin. Most baffling is Emma Watson’s Lucy, a wardrobe girl who becomes involved with Clark, only to be upstaged by Monroe. In the few scenes where she’s featured, Lucy proves so one-note, so typical and so devoid of any character arc that I cannot imagine how the talented and clever Watson was coerced into signing on for the part. Perhaps she didn’t read the script.
Much of the immediate reaction about this film referred to it as this year’s The King’s Speech. Take it from someone who’s not a big fan of last year’s Oscar-winning movie: My Week with Marilyn doesn’t remotely touch its predecessor in terms of character development, acting caliber and production value. The film borders on made-for-TV-movie quality; it feels soulless, directionless, dusty. Even I – someone not of Monroe’s generation – know more about her than was offered in the narrative. It’s a subject that’s been beaten to death: She was depressive, she was addicted to pills and booze, she was surrounded with instigators and yes men, she entertained countless failed marriages, she was cripplingly self-conscious, she was a heartbreaker. By the third act I was ready to make a drinking game out of the facts — they read like a Wikipedia entry on repeat.
What would’ve made me happy? Instead of pandering to the nostalgia crowd, and (cough) Academy voters, why not explore the psyche behind Monroe’s myriad issues? Make it dark, make it personal, make it an unglamorous, uncomfortable, realistic character study. Someone get director Steve McQueen on the phone! We’ve seen the Marilyn portrayed by Williams — even when she cries, her eyeliner doesn’t run. She rips into a bottle of vodka, but her lipstick never smudges. She strips naked and skinny dips in a river, but the childish giggle never leaves her face, even though the water must be freezing.
Clearly, My Week with Marilyn left me cold. Even more so after screening an early cut of another work commenting on the nature of film (Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) the following day. Hugo has its issues as well, but it also has a soul. It’s obviously made by someone who is passionate about the material and reveres the history of his field. In stark contrast, My Week with Marilyn plays like a to-do list. Number 1: Secure Golden Globe. Number 2: Secure Oscar. I hate to say it, but I have a creeping feeling those empty boxes will get checked come awards season. I’ll be the one throwing popcorn at my TV screen.