NEW YORK – The luminous Michelle Williams gives a layered performance that goes beyond impersonation in My Week With Marilyn. Playing both the damaged, insecure woman and the sensual celebrity construct, as well as the role with which Marilyn Monroe was struggling during a particularly difficult shoot, Williams gets us on intimate terms with one of Hollywood’s most enduring and tragic icons. If much of what surrounds her in Simon Curtis’ biographical drama is less nuanced, her work alone keeps the movie entertaining.
Following its premiere as the Centerpiece gala of the New York Film Festival, the film will be released Nov. 4 by the Weinstein Company, which likely is planning an awards-season push behind Williams.
Adrian Hodges’ dutiful screenplay is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, “The Prince, The Showgirl and Me,” and a subsequent confessional volume that gives the film its title. The 23-year-old Clark was third a.d. to Laurence Olivier during production on the 1957 feature, The Prince and the Showgirl, a forgettable comedy adapted by Terence Rattigan from his play, The Sleeping Prince.
Monroe’s co-star and director on the picture, Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) had acquired his professional discipline and classical training slogging away in repertory theater companies. As portrayed here, he shows little patience for Monroe’s chronic tardiness, her nervous jitters and her infuriating devotion to Method acting. Things get off to a bad start when she keeps a cast that includes the illustrious Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) standing around in full costume for two hours on the first day of shooting.
Recently married to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and anxious to be taken seriously as an actress, Marilyn has her own on-set, one-woman pep squad to run interference in acting coach Paula Strasberg (ZoëWanamaker), whose maternal instincts appear not without self-interest.
The culture-clash element slips in and out of focus in Hodges’ script, bringing only obvious insights to the incompatibility between seasoned British professionals and an unschooled actress whose fragility was equal to her fame. The film finds more texture, if not much more substance, in the delicate quasi-romance at its center between Marilyn and Colin (Eddie Redmayne).
The son of a well-connected family, Colin begins dating Lucy (an underused Emma Watson), who works in wardrobe. But he grows steadily more mesmerized by Marilyn. When Miller retreats to New York, Colin gains her trust and is called upon to mediate during crises. But despite repeated warnings to avoid getting in too deep, he falls under her spell, bewitched as much by the sad child-woman as by the dream goddess.
Redmayne strikes a fine balance between blind adoration and a more manful urge to protect Marilyn. His work, as much as Williams’ bruised candor, makes their scenes together captivating.
“That’s the first time I’ve kissed anyone younger than me,” she says after a brief lip-lock during a day of truancy from the set. “There’s a lot of older guys in Hollywood.” That duality — guileless and jaded, instinctive and knowing, helpless and manipulative — is key to Williams’ characterization. While there are no startling new insights, she harnesses the essence of Marilyn as a fully sexualized being and a lost girl caught up in something she both needs and fears. Williams also does her own singing, nailing Monroe’s breathy vocal style in clips of her doing “Heatwave” and “That Old Black Magic.”
Beyond its lead performance, the film suffers from the chintzy counterfeit feel of too many screen recreations of real-life celebrity tales. (Think Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, or Truman Capote drama Infamous.) Dench has a couple of lovely moments when Thorndike graciously extends a sympathetic hand to Monroe, but other characters like Scott’s Miller or Julia Ormond’s Vivien Leigh are merely check marks on a famous-name roll call.
Branagh takes his cue from one of Olivier’s hammier film turns, windily quoting Prospero while vacillating between pompous eye-rolling and humbled admiration. He does show the odd flicker of life, particularly when Larry’s vanity or petulance reveal themselves. But there’s barely a character beneath the so-so imitation.
Fault lies with both Hodges’ workmanlike script and Curtis’ failure to excavate much psychological depth. The director comes from an extensive background in theater and television, notably the two Cranford series and the gripping, under-appreciated crime mini, Five Days. (The roster of accomplished British actors turning up in nothing roles, among them Dominic Cooper, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones and Simon Russell Beale, attests to his clout.) But while he does coax marvelously loose work from Williams, Curtis’ first theatrical feature is otherwise starchy and short on perspective.
The movie looks polished and smartly recreates the period, often filming on the same Pinewood Studios sets where The Prince and the Showgirl was shot. But its slickness feels a little anonymous. Beyond the not-inconsiderable enjoyment of watching Williams inhabit a pop-culture legend, My Week With Marilyn is superficial showbiz pageantry.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Weinstein Co.)
Production companies: Trademark Films, Weinstein Company, BBC Films, in association with Lipsync Productions
Cast: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Philip Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Michael Kitchen, Julia Ormond, Simon Russell Beale, Dougray Scott, ZoëWanamaker, Geraldine Somerville
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries by Colin Clark
Producers: David Parfitt, Harvey Weinstein
Executive producers: Jamie Laurenson, Simon Curtis, Ivan Mactaggart, Christine Langan, Bob Weinstein, Kelly Carmichael
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Donal Woods
Music: Conrad Pope, Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Editor: Adam Recht
R rating, 101 minutes