Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, every British thespian ever
Director: Simon Curtis
Any good movie should have a great twist in it – one that really takes your breath away with its sheer unexpectedness. My Week With Marilyn saves its killer swerve for the very end: when the credits rolled I was absolutely gobsmacked that they didn’t say “Directed by Colin Clark, written by Colin Clark, produced by Colin Clark” – because, seriously? It’s not for me to say whether Clark’s description of what happened when he met Marilyn Monroe on a film set in England is the “true story” that it claims to be, but this film really does a terrible job of making that case. It reads more like someone found a lulzy Mary-Sue filled fanfic on the internet and decided to make a movie out of it for shits and giggles.
Most of the reviews of this film focus heavily on Michelle Williams’ performance as Monroe, and they’re absolutely right to do so – she shines in the role, inhabiting the part completely. It’s a real double-edged sword of a part, because the busty, giggly image of Monroe is such a key part of popular culture that it would be far too easy to get completely swallowed by that side of things, but Williams is clever here – she never overuses the typical traits of Monroe, and when she does deploy them, she makes them feel natural and spontaneous. It’s a shame, really, that she didn’t have a better film to play this role in, because while she’s great, potentially even award-worthy, everything that surrounds her is so slight that the film feels too lightweight to really earn her the recognition she deserves. Perhaps it’s a problem with the source material or the framing device, but the film never seems to make up its mind about Marilyn – is she a ditz? is she secretly smart? is she a brilliant actress? is she just an attractive woman muddling her way through? – and it’s to Williams’ immense credit that she manages to build a consistent characterisation for her role in spite of this.
For a film titled My Week With Marilyn, the actual week with Marilyn takes up a disappointingly short amount of the running time, especially considering the time that the picture takes to get us to that point. A lot of time is spent on the nitty gritty of the film industry, and the anxiety over whether Marilyn will even make it to England for the film in the first place. There are some good actors doing some very good work while all this takes place, of course, but the film does lag significantly whenever Marilyn herself is absent, especially since very little else of any importance happens in the film. If I were feeling charitable, I could suggest that the picture does make some quite interesting points about British manners in the process of making the film-within-the-film (for example, in the scene where Marilyn is dragged by Olivier over to Dame Sybil Thorndike to apologise for making her wait, a situation that makes precisely no one feel any better, or the scene where Vivien Leigh arrives to compliment Marilyn’s acting to her face, only to complain to Olivier in a private screening that Marilyn’s only talent is her sex appeal immediately afterwards), but these moments are few and far between, and frequently buried under bizarre intervals like one abruptly-inserted reflection on how the unions are OUT OF CONTROL.
As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, Judi Dench is charm itself as Sybil Thorndike, but the part itself is ridiculous (my boyfriend enquired afterwards whether she was meant to be a ghost, coming back to beatifically teach us all a lesson about how to be perfect human beings), Emma Watson emphasises her lines in odd places and therefore is the weak link of the name cast, but still somehow has a real presence on screen that justifies her presence (perhaps her casting itself was some sort of meta comment on the part of the producers), Zoe Wanamaker devoured the scenery and had a tremendous time in the process, Dominic Cooper did his best to make sense of a part that was all over the place and didn’t always succeed, and Kenneth Branagh’s accent didn’t always behave itself either. At the centre of all of this was Eddie Redmayne as Colin, taking a dull cipher of a character and actually doing a pretty good job of making him engaging. However, the film constantly tries to undermine him – it wants to present Colin as a everyman, the guy off the street who got close to the most famous film star in the world, the plucky upstart just trying to make his way in the film industry, yet it’s always Colin’s upper-class connections that open doors for him – his links to Olivier, his godfather sneaking him and Marilyn into Windsor Castle – so the overall feeling is not one of the underdog making it big, but of someone of privilege working the old-boy network for all it’s worth. Truth in fiction, perhaps, but still not that pleasant to stomach, particularly for a modern audience.
Will we be seeing Michelle Williams’ name on the shortlist come Oscar season? At the very least, I’d be surprised if she didn’t pick up a few nominations, but whether this film is enough to power her to an actual win is another matter, particularly since she’ll undoubtedly be up against Meryl Streep. I still believe there’s an Oscar in Williams’ future, but despite her excellent work here, I’m just not sure if it’ll be for this film.
Shame: Michael Fassbender has a lot of sex. WHERE CAN I GET TICKETS?
The Descendents: George Clooney. Hawaii. Families are hard. (repeat to fade)
Coriolanus: From William Shakespeare, the screenwriter of Gladiator and The Last Samurai. Can’t wait for the RSC to turn those out in rep.