Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Week With Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott 
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The role of Marilyn Monroe has to be one of the most intimidating and challenging parts an actress can be asked to play, though not for the reasons you'd assume. As far as legendary pop culture icons and celebrities go, there was always a tendency to believe there had to be more to her than what we saw. She really wasn't a good actress. She wasn't incredibly talented. Yet here she is today as this tragic figure and sometimes it's kind of tricky to determine how. That's why casting her is thankless. Do you you cast a movie star who isn't much of an actress for a sensationalized look at "Marilyn?" Or find a great actress who may not necessarily come off as a big movie star for a deeper look at "Norma Jean?" Simon Curtis' pseudo-biopic My Week With Marilyn answers that question by laying claim to the most intriguing casting choice in years and Michelle Williams' Oscar nominated performance delivers on it, even in moments when the rest of the film has trouble keeping up with her.

Foregoing the more traditional biopic route, writer Adrian Hodges (adapting Colin Clark's memoirs) instead takes the Frost/Nixon approach, capturing a brief, but pivotal moment-in-time snapshot in the life of an iconic figure. The story's told through the eyes of Oxford grad and aspiring filmmaker Colin (Eddie Redmayne) who spent a week with Marilyn Monroe (Williams) as third assistant director on Laurence Olivier's (Kenneth Branagh) 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl (then titled The Sleeping Prince). Olivier, the respected thespian and stage actor, sees casting Marilyn opposite him as a chance for to regain his youth and vitality, finally becoming a full-fledged movie star. For Marilyn-- already the biggest star on the planet-- it's the rare chance to be taken seriously as an actress by holding her own onscreen with one of the best. Of course, the result of this promising collaboration ended up laying somewhere in between a complete disaster and a curious footnote in cinematic history. Over-medicated, showing up late and flubbing lines, the Marilyn who shows up on set with acting coach Paula Strasburg (Zoe Wanamaker) glued to her arm more closely resembles a frightened child in need of constant babysitting than her sexy public persona. After Marilyn's husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) skips town in the midst of her meltdowns, it becomes Clark's job to look after the star and a semi-romantic friendship develops, awkwardly placing him in the middle of her feud with Olivier. An infatuated Colin falls fast and hard, ignoring warnings from Olivier and her agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper) not to buy into the "little girl lost" act they think she's selling.

Outside of Williams' performance and the fascinating on-set clash with Olivier, there isn't a lot here, but there doesn't need to be because those two elements are more than enough. While played well by Redmayne, Colin is kind of a flat character, functioning only as the eyes through which we can observe Marilyn as he attempts to grasp the magnitude of what's happening to him. Whether she's actually interested in him romantically seems almost beside the point. Instead, he represents for her the opportunity to have a real date, act a little crazy and enjoy the normal romantic pleasures that have proved impossible because of her fame. There's a sense all she wants to do is get rid of Marilyn and is unintentionally using Colin to do it, which can only lead to heartache for him. Then again, there are many moments where we sense she doesn't want to get rid of her at all, or simply can't. Her use of the Marilyn "persona" as a security blanket for coping with her own insecurity comes to the forefront when faced with the daunting task of going one-one with the legendary Olivier on set. She can't rely on that persona this time and without so much as a shred of confidence in her own acting abilities, begins to break. Olivier understandably loses his patience and temper, even as his reasoning behind hiring her reveals just as much about his own lack of confidence.

This is some performance from Michelle Williams, justifiably earning every bit of praise it's gotten. She just nails it. The facial expressions. The walk. The voice. Especially the voice. Everything. There's this moment when she's with Colin and they're suddenly mobbed by fans and photographers. She turns to him and asks, "Should I be her?" before slipping into character and becoming Marilyn. Williams seems to turn it on and off at the flip of a switch, alternating between the superstar we thought we knew and a frazzled train wreck of emotional dependency. The question wasn't whether she could play the latter but how well she could capture the former, which is ironic considering her career start as teen sexpot Jen Lindley on Dawson's Creek. It's a testament to how hard she worked since then to move away from that image that seeing her play this now seems like a huge stretch. There's at least a passable physical resemblance to the icon, but what Williams really brings is the depth, making Marilyn the unlikeliest addition to her growing gallery of emotionally tortured heroines.

In his Oscar nominated supporting performance Branagh subtly avoids turning Olivier into an all-out villain, instead showing a gifted actor past his prime who's grasping at straws to turn Marilyn into something she can't possibly be. Her only supporter is actress and co-star Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), who realizes her fragile psyche responds better to encouragement than harsh criticism. The rest of the supporting players aren't as well-developed. Dougray Scott is hilariously miscast (then altogether forgotten about) as Arthur Miller, reimagined here as some kind of enigmatic stud. But the film's most thankless role belongs to Emma Watson as a wardrobe girl Lucy, who Colin strings along while he's off frolicking with Marilyn all week. It's one thing to waste a name actress for a useless, underwritten part, but quite another to insultingly pretend in the last act that the part meant anything. While her purpose is clear, it's just isn't followed through enough to have any kind of impact. There's also a scene early on with Oliver's then-wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) that comes of nowhere, seemingly thrown in only to give Ormond a juicy scene and hammer us too hard with the theme of insecurity.

When Michelle Williams was announced to play Marilyn, Monroe fanatics were predictably up in arms, but the most interesting complaint I heard was that she didn't "deserve" it. She's too short. She's not pretty enough. Not enough charisma. But the real question should have been whether Marilyn "deserves" to be played by Williams. By the end of the film I believed that she did and the choice seems especially inspired when you consider all Marilyn wanted was to be taken seriously as actress. It's likely she would have appreciated the irony. The great thing about biographical dramas is how they bring two figures together from different eras with seemingly nothing in common who must co-exist in a single performance. Using that criteria, it's difficult coming up with a more intriguing pairing than Marilyn Monroe and Michelle Williams. What Norma Jean really wanted was a career like Williams. She got Marilyn Monroe's instead. And it destroyed her. Now with a legitimately great actress playing her, she finally ends up attaining the respectability she never could on her own.             

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