There are chiefly 2 reasons to watch Marilyn Monroe biopic My Week with Marilyn. The first is for its 2 Oscar nominated performances – Michelle Williams (Best Actress) and Kenneth Branagh (Best Supporting Actor). The second, particularly of interest to cinephiles, is the chance to briefly relive Hollywood’s Golden Age, and meet some of its greatest figures, portrayed by recognisable contemporary talent. In this regard, My Week with Marilyn is a treat. However, for all the surface pleasure this star-struck drama provides, ultimately that’s all it offers. The film has nothing really new to say about the enigmatic legend of Marilyn Monroe, and noticeably lacks both dramatic and emotional oomph.
Based on the memoirs of British filmmaker Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn focuses on the short period in 1956 that Clark (played as a young man by Eddie Redmayne) crossed paths on an English film set with Marilyn Monroe (Williams) – already by then the most famous actress in the world, and a desperately insecure woman on marriage number 3.
Although Williams, and Branagh – playing acclaimed British thespian Sir Laurence Olivier – have been lavished with critical praise, Redmayne’s excellent work also deserves some recognition. My Week with Marilyn feels at its core like a coming of age tale, with Colin enduring a baptism of fire as he pursues his dream of a career in the film industry… much to the bemusement of his well-to-do family.
My Week with Marilyn is Colin’s story, with events shown from his perspective (yup, he ever gets a voice-over), and for the audience to really become invested in the film they have to be on Colin’s side. Redmayne completely delivers in this regard, capturing nice guy Colin’s wide-eyed fandom and enthusiasm despite the lackey-like nature of his first on-set job. Freckled Redmayne is sure to win many admirers here (many of them women, to be sure) with his charismatic, and way too underrated, performance.
Of course, the audience is in the cinema for Marilyn Monroe, not Colin, and My Week with Marilyn is amazing talent showcase for Michelle Williams – who, for the past few years, post-Dawson’s Creek, has been developing a reputation as a gifted actress through assorted, intimate indie fare. Sometimes Williams’ Marilyn impersonation is so uncanny that for a split-second you have to remind yourself that the filmmakers aren’t just using real vintage Monroe footage.
These compliments aside, My Week with Marilyn is pretty predictable in terms of the insights it offers about the starlet. Most of the time Monroe comes across as a damaged predecessor to the likes of Britney Spears and Michael Jackson, suffocated by invasive fame and kept working non-stop by handlers who ensured she stayed functional with a dangerous mix of alcohol and prescription drugs.
What is interesting though is the way that the film explores Monroe’s weirdly contradictory attitudes to fantasy and artifice. On the one hand she consciously uses her blatant sexpot image to get what (and who) she wants. On the other hand, as an actor she is obsessed with “Method,” ferreting out the “real” in every role and stumbling badly on set whenever the pretence is logically weak.
This causes problems for Monroe on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a contrived romantic comedy that sees her directed by, and starring alongside, the vain Laurence Olivier (It’s also of course the film set where she meets Colin). My Week with Marilyn makes abundantly clear that for all the insecurities Monroe felt about acting alongside classically trained theatre veterans like Olivier, they in turn were jealous of her effortless movie stardom – her innate ability to captivate an audience through a camera lens. It’s a skill you either have or you don’t. It can’t be learned.
For the record, the rest of the cast in My Week with Marilyn – including Harry Potter alumnus Emma Watson, and Dominic Cooper – are competent in their small roles. Of this bunch Judi Dench is the real standout as Dame Sybil Thorndike, another warm, likeable presence who seems dedicated to diffusing on-set tensions as subtly as possible.
It’s a pity that as a film My Week with Marilyn is similarly warm and likeable… but nothing more. The movie’s biggest problem seems to be how little actually happens. Granted it’s based on a true story (or so Clark insists), and real life rarely fits the standard Hollywood narrative mould, but there is no central dramatic thrust. Nothing to really move you as a viewer. Marilyn doesn’t have a drug overdose. She doesn’t run away from the set, triggering a nationwide manhunt. Hell, (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t even sleep with Colin. After 101 minutes nothing is resolved and characters go their separate ways to do other, more historically significant things.
In the end then, My Week with Marilyn makes a pleasant outing to the cinema but no more. Right now, if you want to watch an engrossing, emotionally involving film about a great female icon of the 20th Century, you’re better off seeking out Marilyn’s Academy Award rival The Iron Lady (my review).
Last Updated: February 21, 2012