D: Simon Curtis. DP: Ben Smithard. W: Adrian Hodges (Based on Colin Clark’s memoirs, “My Week with Marilyn” and “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me.“) Starring: Michelle Williams/Eddie Redmayne/Kenneth Branagh/Julia Ormond/Judi Dench/Dougray Scott/Philip Jackson/Emma Watson/Dominic Cooper/Zoe Wanamaker/Derek Jacobi/Jim Carter.
As awards season begins we all start to pay attention to the movies once again. And if you are not, then you should. Go grab some Starbucks and get warm in the dark.
First up for me is Simon Curtis’ new film, My Week with Marilyn. Chronicling the film production of Sir Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, the film focuses on Marilyn Monroe’s specific time in England shooting the movie and the young third assistant director, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who works with her on and off set. Right from the first frame the movie is Michelle Williams’ Monroe, although she does not show up in the story for a beat or two. Rather her freshly pressed image is immediately consumed through the lens of the film and the show within the show Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) watches. The film is right on point in signifying how much Monroe was consumed, revered, and judged through the lens and her image. But it works as the audience is given time to fall for delicate darling Redmayne whose precociousness and genuine innocence never allows the story to seem trite. He is helped along through his journey by Branagh’s superb Olivier. Very suitable that the modern Shakespeare icon of our time should play the legend of the previous generation. He’s marvelous and every now and then lets Dame Judi Dench give glowing memory to another Dame, Sybil Thorndike.
Many (including myself) may have had a few trepidations about Michelle Williams tackling such a screen icon. Not even trepidations about her talents as an actress, but more worry in the vein of “how could anyone play her?” Popular culture is over saturated with her image, its like attempting to play Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, or Grace Kelly. Their star text (their meaning both visually and emotionally outside of their work) means more and has outlived some of their performances. That being said, Williams conquers the role. She wraps herself in Monroe’s vulnerability, sensuality, and unease in her own life and work. The role is so her own and audiences will feel, like I did, a moving memory of Monroe, yet a performance that has not a moment of mimicry in it.
Ultimately, what is even more memorable and fresh about My Week with Marilyn as a biopic is that it only tackles a specific moment of time in Monroe’s career. Rather than attempting to slog through the scope of her life, much of which is filled with vagueness and speculation, the film gives a specific structure to the Monroe experience. Clearly this structure is stolen from its original material, but nevertheless, stacked against so many other recent biopics it reads fresh. Some recent biopics have attempted to highlight specific chapters of icons lives, 2009’s Coco Before Chanel, 2009’s The Young Victoria, 2008’s Milk, and 2008’s Frost/Nixon are a few examples. However, none have felt as clean and compact as Curtis’ film. Even Ben Smithard’s camera work lends itself to the voyeurism of Monroe’s life at the time. Curtis and Smithard give certain scenes a wonderful sense of watchfulness as the camera mirrors character’s eyes or the feeling of an ever present entity stalking Monroe.
And thankfully what is able to be explored in this structure is Monroe’s star text itself. A film that tackles the life of a performer faces far different risks and trials than of other public figures. Monroe’s life, filled with ups and downs, was so public that attempting to address it all would surely never stand up to the memory of her or the meaning given to her image. Even tackling the basics of Monroe: the sexualization of her image (on and off camera), her clear and destructive need for love and approval, her very knowledge (and wink) of that image, and its voice within female work on screen, fills up one movie. But all that is allowed to be unpacked because Adrian Hodges’ script is so tenaciously precise, yet allows all its characters to breathe and take their own life within such famous faces. And that is its greatest success. Williams may put on a famous face, but not just because she can, but because there is a story to be told and it is human. Even through the lens of a camera.