The life and career of Marilyn Monroe are legendary and tragic. Her tenure at 20th Century Fox was all too brief but distinguished by some very fine films - most still fondly remembered today. And although overstated time and again, it must be said that Monroe's iconography, an intoxicating blend of sexual innocence and bubble-headed brashness, has never been equaled by any star or celebrity since her time, although most every ingénue and starlet has miserably tried and failed to recreate it. That the truth about the woman behind the facade should be more conflicted, painful and ultimately genuine than any of her on-screen images audiences continue to fall in love with and hold so dear, is perhaps the greatest misconception about the woman herself. But Marilyn Monroe played the dazzlingly ditz better than anyone could. But she was neither as naive, nor as utterly silly as her characters behaved on the big screen. Yet, even minor attempts to remake her own image - her move to study at the Actor's Studio for instance, to become a more serious actress - met with frequent and renewed disapproval from her studio bosses and audiences alike. Once Marilyn Monroe - the icon - had been galvanized with her fans there was no room for Norma Jean Baker.
Simon Curtis' My Week With Marilyn (2011) attempts to tell only a very small segment of what is ultimately Monroe's public and private legacy. It's Spring 1956, a scant 7 years before Marilyn's death. Following a string of light-hearted big box office hits, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) is at the top of her professional game. Regrettably, as her stature has risen so have her insecurities. A growing addiction to prescription drugs and mounting fears that she is not living up to her own potential as an actress has left Marilyn at the mercy of sycophantic acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). In constant need of approval, Marilyn is, perhaps more than anything else, an incredibly lost and frightfully unhappy child in womanly form.
She has just arrived in England with her third husband, imminent playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) to begin work on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film being financed, directed and co-starred in by Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). The opportunity to co-star with Olivier - arguably, Britain's greatest theatrical talent - comes at a particularly bad time for all concerned. Although at the peak of her artistic powers Marilyn is also in the absolute depths of her inner despair. Miller is cold and aloof and frequently absent from her side while Olivier is regularly frazzled by Marilyn's inability to perform a single scene without Paula's approval. 'Larry's wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) is the aging movie queen from another vintage, who recognizes the strange hold Marilyn has on men - including her own husband. Into this mix of unhappy lost souls comes the real innocent of our story - Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Born into a life of stifling privilege, Colin views the movies as his big break away from that ensconced heritage. But his family, particularly his father, see Colin's interests in film as thoroughly misguided - the daydreams of a boy who has not yet grown up.
Based on the real Colin Clark's book about his weeklong escapist fantasia with the most popular actress of her time, the film's screenplay by Adrian Hodges retains Clark's first person narrative. We quietly observe his innate and personalized awkwardness, his inability to procure a position within the film's production unit until Vivien sympathetically reminds Larry that he has promised a friend of a friend to give Colin his first big break. Colin is introduced to Marilyn at the start of the production, while spirits are still universally high and expectations for an intercontinental hit, higher still. Marilyn sees Colin as just another wide-eyed admirer. And, in fact, Colin is that. But there's something more that Marilyn is able to draw out of him - a shared sadness perhaps - to be misread so simplistically and perhaps condescendingly by the rest of the world.
On set, Colin sparks a burgeoning friendship with costume manager, Lucy (Emma Watson). She can see how star struck he is with Marilyn and tells him point blank that she is not up to being a stand-in substitute, merely to satisfy the lusts he has procured while ogling Monroe during filming. Nevertheless, Colin and Lucy begin to fall in love. But Colin's attentions are quickly diverted away from Lucy. He has caught Marilyn's fancy and she calls upon him - first as her personal gofer, then as a friend she can trust with her secrets. Colin incurs the wrath of second assistant, David Orton (Robert Portal). He used to be Marilyn's fetch n' carry boy once not so long ago and perhaps even her lover. David's jealousy toward Colin is quite obvious, but to no purpose.
Marilyn demands Colin on the set and Olivier - already behind schedule and over cost - is only too happy to acquiesce. But he warns Colin not to get too close to Marilyn. Despite her pleas against loneliness, Olivier tells Colin "She doesn't need to be rescued." Nevertheless, when Paula finds Marilyn's bedroom door locked and is unable to talk to her through the door, the first person she leans on is Colin. He rushes to Monroe's rental - a remote country cottage far away from the paparazzo's prying eyes and flashbulbs - and scales her second story window with a ladder. He finds his icon not dead or even distraught, but slightly woozy from the sleeping pills she has taken to go to bed. Colin spends the night with Marilyn - fully clothed - but lying next to her in bed. The next day, David warns Colin to stay away from Monroe from now on. Marilyn's private bodyguard, Roger Smith (Philip Jackson) arrives at Pinewood Studios to collect Colin for an 'engagement'. Much to David and Olivier's dismay, Colin discovers Marilyn in the backseat. She has kidnapped him with Smith's complicity for a day of playing hooky from the set.
Colin uses this opportunity to show Marilyn something of the world he comes from. He takes her to Windsor Castle where his uncle, Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi) is curator of the expansive library archives. Marilyn works her magic on Sir Owen and the rest of the staff who applaud her arrival as though she were their queen. Next, it's off to Eton Prep-school where Colin and his 'date' are accosted by a friendly group of boys - shocked and surprised to discover a goddess in their midst. The afternoon concludes with a romp through the nearby woods. Marilyn goes skinny dipping and Colin - by now hopelessly bound in his puppy love - dutifully dives into the water after her. The two share a very brief kiss in the lake, then another - more tenderly sweet and prolonged on dry land, before Smith encourages that they return to the cottage to settle in for the night.
The next day Marilyn is luminous in her scenes with Olivier. Afterward, Olivier crudely suggests to Colin that it is their tryst that has made all the difference in her acting. Colin denies any sexual contact, but Lucy is bitterly wounded by the obvious affection mirrored in his eyes for Marilyn. The filming of The Prince and the Showgirl continues. As production winds down Olivier invites Colin into the screening room to view the dailies. Marilyn glows off the screen and Olivier muses that she does not even know how extraordinary she is. However, as Colin has wisely deduced for himself, the film will do nothing for either performer's image; not to advance Marilyn's desire to be taken seriously as an actress, nor transform Olivier's theatrical presence into that of an engaging film star.
As the production wraps, Colin realizes that his brief interlude with America's reigning sex symbol has come to an end just as Olivier and Roger Smith predicted. Yet, Marilyn has not used Colin merely to suit her own needs. Nor has he exploited her status to elevate his own level of importance within this cloistered film making community. As Marilyn bids Colin a polite farewell, Lucy asks "She broke your heart, didn't she?" And although Colin is unable to answer her directly, the evidence of Marilyn's impact on him is plainly obvious. "Good," Lucy quietly reasons, "It needed to be broken."
My Week With Marilyn is a superbly written, expertly played film on most every level. Michelle Williams is frighteningly on point as Monroe. There is always a danger when attempting to emulate an iconic personality - such as Marilyn Monroe - of delving too broadly into camp mannerisms that render the performance cloying as a caricature. Certainly, every star in Hollywood who has gone through her own Monroe phase (from Madonna to the late Anna Nicole Smith) has never managed to scratch beyond the surface of the Monroe mystique.
But Williams gets under Marilyn's skin. She breathes life into her art that seems very genuine and at times borders on some chilling perfection channeling Monroe's spirit. We believe her every step of the way and can almost feel a connection from beyond the grave. I can think of only two other actresses in recent times who have come this close in resurrecting a talent; Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daugther (1980) and Marion Cotillard's morphing into Edith Piaff for La Vie En Rose (2007). Of course, My Week With Marilyn would not work nearly as well if the male lead were unequal to William's central performance. Eddie Redmayne proves himself perfectly pitched to meet that challenge. His Colin Clark is the boy someone like Norma Jean Baker - before she became Marilyn Monroe - ought to have married. His performance goes beyond simple charm - although Redmayne is charming as all that.
Yet, his Clark is also a kindred spirit to William's Monroe. They are the same person in many ways, similarly occupied with dreams and aspirations that will - and can - never be fulfilled, At their core, each is a very fundamental flawed human being and that makes their 'affair' and ultimate parting all the more bittersweet for the audience. Like the greatest of love stories, these are two people who truly belong together but can never be together. The rest of the performances in the film are uniformly solid, particularly Branagh's Olivier. Branagh - revered as his generation's Olivier - captures, if not in contents, than in spirit the essence of Sir Larry's caustic wit. Judy Dench, cast as Dame Sybil Thorndike - (who had a small part in The Prince and the Showgirl) has an even smaller, but arguably more memorable role in this film. She is at once Olivier's friend, Marilyn's sympathizer and Colin's confidant.
Ben Smithard's cinematography is like looking at a gorgeous - if prolonged - vintage Kodachrome snapshot from this period. We get all the commemoration but with none of the kitsch attached. Judy Farr's costume design nicely contrasts Marilyn's simple fifties elegance against the more stoic traditionalism of Great Britain from a period, when it was hardly as great as it had once been, but still clung gallantly to its old ways. Films about Hollywood icons that actually work in filmic terms are extremely rare, but My Week With Marilyn is definitely one of them. it excels at telling its story without much punctuation or glitzy fanfare and that, perhaps, is best reason why this semi-biographical film works so splendidly as sheer art for art's sake. Bravo and heartily won kudos to all!
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray delivers the goods. This is a beautifully rendered 1080p translation of the original filmic elements. Color has an appropriately dated appeal. Flesh tones seem natural. Contrast is stylized but nicely rendered throughout. Truly, you are in for a visual treat with this disc. The 5.1 DTS digital audio is also a winner - very much preserving the rather understated score by Conrad Pope. Extras are limited to a featurette about the real Marilyn and her recreation for this film.
One note of discontent that must be pointed out: Alliance opens this disc with a 'commercial' and then bombards the viewer with no less than six trailers for upcoming Bluray releases. These 'extras' cannot be fast forwarded, but you can advance through them - one at a time - using your chapter search button. Seriously, Alliance - 'a commerical?!?' This is just in bad taste. I, as I suspect others, buy movies on Blu-ray for the sheer appreciation of the film - not so that we can feel as though our regular broadcast monitors have never been turned off! Badly done. Nevertheless - My Week With Marilyn comes very highly recommended. This is one we'll be remembering for many years yet to come!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)