I lapped up My Week with Marilyn as a ‘my first job’ tale, and a ‘my first job in the movie industry’ at that. The story is told from the perspective of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), an assistant to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branaugh) during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Clark was positioned to see, and later participate, in the backstage drama between Olivier, the female lead Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and her newlywed husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).
As a ‘based on a true story’ tale, I am less strict in wanting the story to have a over-arching theme or scenes of grand dramatic conflict. Life does not always follow classical screenplay structures. (An Education is a recent memoir-based movie that did have the arc of fiction, and of course I liked that just fine too.) So while the potential in the story is there for scenery-chewing and bathos, Williams and director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges all neatly sidestep that trap and present a nuanced portrait of the troubled actress and her innocent fling with the young Clark.
Monroe allows Clark to see her wounded side, and he in turn is treated to her joie de vivre. Clark alone sees that Olivier’s tempestuous reactions to Monroe’s late appearances on set are grounded in Olivier’s own self-doubt. Branaugh is given a great moment to play where he realizes he is too old on screen for the role — the same reason he didn’t cast his own wife, Vivien Leigh, who played the role on stage. But this is really the Redmayne and Williams show. They build a believable connection surrounded by great British actors (including a memorable Dame Judy Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike). I’d have been happy to see more inside the dissolution of Monroe and Miller’s relationship or other side-scenes, but the movie faithfully sticks to Clark’s point of view.
People are expecting Williams to be nominated for her performance and I hope she is. I was skeptical anyone could pull off someone so singular as Monroe without falling into parody. The only blown moment I noticed was when Monroe turns to Clark and asks “Shall I be her?” The reading is a throwaway, and the director and editor Adam Recht don’t give the moment the valence it deserves. Clark may already have intuited that her effervescent persona was a put-on, but for the audience this is a bright line that shows Monroe’s acting didn’t end when the camera stopped rolling. The cognitive burden of being Marilyn Monroe connects to need to escape with pills, alcohol and — perhaps — seduction.
Production design and costuming is great, evoking the period. Alexandre Desplat’s score is, like the writing and directing, subtle and guileless. The cinematography, by Ben Smithard, was a little dingy for my taste. I would’ve liked to see the film scenes in a Technicolor style that contrasted more with the look of the “real” scenes, or vice-versa. All in all, this is not a great film but a good one — and one well worth seeing if you’d like to see a fun and fascinating real-life story from a 1950’s movie set.