If you go to this movie expecting a resurrection of Marilyn Monroe, you’ll be disappointed. Yet, how do you leave such expectations at home?
Well, you can’t. Everyone has an idea of who Marilyn was. Or is. Undiminished by the ordinariness of aging, she lives on as a Hollywood immortal, her image burned deep into our collective psyche. None of knows what she was really like, but the myth of Marilyn is public property, and we’re all to some degree possessive of our icons, since we helped to create them. Whether you see her as the ultimate cinematic sex bomb, a tragic victim of a merciless machine that chewed her up and spat her out, or a more complex variation located between these extremes, you do see someone.
Big ask of Michelle Williams, then, to take on the role of Marilyn in this tale based on the kiss-and-tell recollections of British documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark. Clark claims to have had a romantic interlude with Monroe as a fresh-faced young lad while working as a dogsbody at the now legendary Pinewood Studios in 1956.
Monroe, already huge on both sides of the Atlantic, was in England to star with Sir Laurence Olivier (played here – with hammy relish – by Kenneth Branagh) in the ill-fated movie The Prince and the Showgirl. The pairing was supposed to be a potent American-British brew, but ended as a disastrous mismatch of chemically and methodologically incompatible divas.
Anxious and lacking confidence, Monroe idolises Olivier, and is thus vulnerable to his many criticisms. She is an intuitive actress with an obsessive reliance on ‘method acting’ and her ‘coach’ (Zoë Wanamaker); he is a celebrated thespian, somewhat pompous and grandiose, and intolerant of her different perspective and apparently dippy personality.
Further, there is an undercurrent of resentment from good ol’ Sir Larry, perhaps partly deriving from a secret, unrequitable lustful fixation. As an old fart, he knows he just ain’t up to it with the likes of Marilyn, even if wife Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormond) wasn’t hanging around the set, and Marilyn wasn’t newly married to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). The dented male sexual ego is a dark force to be reckoned with! And perhaps, also, Olivier envies Monroe’s natural affinity for movie-acting and the camera. His more formal, stagey brand of thespianism does not necessarily translate perfectly to the screen. Hard to take for an egotist of his dimension.
While the conflict between the two mega-stars is amusing enough, and the on-set milieu of the time convincingly portrayed and therefore compelling for those, like me, who are intrigued by such things, the narrative focus is on the bonding of Marilyn and Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). When Arthur Miller heads back to New York early in the shoot, Marilyn is left alone to face the terrors of working with Olivier. Worse, she discovers evidence that her new husband no longer adores her. Unable to cope, she retreats to bed and self-medication. In this state of dependency and despair, she comes to lean on callow young Colin. She is drawn to his youth and innocence, and his capacity to see beyond the star to the frightened little girl cowering beneath her surface.
Poor Colin falls head over heels in love, despite prudent stern warnings from puzzled – and doubtless jealous – older males that he’s going to get burnt. Monroe plays the poor lad like a Stradivarius, but there is nothing cruel or callous in her manipulations. Rather, she is desperately lonely, insecure, isolated by her persona, a stranger in a strange land grabbing for human contact. Colin, while besotted by Marilyn the Star, is not so blinded by her luminescence that he cannot see the frightened little girl huddling beneath the white satin sheets. Colin’s ingenue perspective allows her to trust him and drop her guard. But even in the privacy of their interaction, she switches back and forth to Marilyn The Star. She knows all too well where her power resides.
Michelle Williams deserves the plaudits she has received for her performance in this role. I took a while to warm to her, probably mostly because of the physical discrepancies between her and Monroe. While Monroe the Myth is always the reference point, Williams avoids facsimile (which would have been intolerable) and makes the character her own with an authority I have not seen in her until now. Sculpting a credible, complex character out of a larger-than-life prototype is a fine balancing act which she negotiates adroitly. It’s enthralling to watch. But Williams goes further than throwing off the shackles of prototype – she breathes multidimensional humanity into the part, and that’s some feat when dealing with myth.
Michelle Williams as Marilyn
The relationship between Monroe and Colin, which in clumsier hands could have veered perilously close to the realm of adolescent male fantasy, is invested with astute psychology and rings true in its dynamics.
Looking around at other reviews, the word ‘slight’ appears with monotonous regularity. Well sure, this movie ain’t gonna change your view of the universe, but so the hell what? It’s entertaining, well scripted, leavened with humour and affecting (if you can give into your sentimental side, just a little). For me, it worked because the dramatic fundamentals are sound, and that’s more than I’d say for some of the recent ‘Serious’ releases focusing on the dark-n-doomy (eg: Martha etc and Shame).
I’m sick of dark stuff. Hurray for Hugo, The Artist and – although it’s not in that exalted league – My Week With Marilyn. Call it ‘slight’ if ya want, but that’s neither here nor there as far as I’m concerned. I reckon it’s a little gem of a flick that works well on all the levels that matter most.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives