23 November 2011
I didn't have to work very hard to avoid bringing up that particular chestnut in regard to My Week with Marilyn, because if one thing about the film is 100% certain, Michelle Williams absolutely does not become Marilyn Monroe. She is playing Marilyn Monroe, and moreover playing her phenomenally fucking hard. It's awfully tiresome to watch, frankly, though that's true of the movie generally, which finds TV-trained director Simon Curtis and TV-trained writer Adrian Hodges crafting what feels a shitload like a TV movie, and not the kind of TV movie like you get on cable, where it feels more cinematic than the vast majority of what ends up playing on cinema. It suggests a network special during sweeps from the mid-1990s.
The factually-derived story centers on the time that Monroe went to England to star in The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by and co-starring Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh); a frothy and lightweight but readily-likable romantic comedy whose production was so miserable for everyone involved that Olivier abandoned directing altogether. The third assistant director on that film was a young man of privileged background, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who had never worked on a movie set before and never would again, but thought it would be run to try to make it as a film professional; over the course of the tortured shoot, Monroe latched onto the mewling youth, and eventually adopted him as her aide, emotional bodyguard, and (if Clark's memoir The Prince, the Showgirl and Me is to be trusted), her lover for one single week.
That's basically the story that My Week with Marilyn tells: goggle-eyed innocent (Redmayne always looks, in everything, like he's about 15 seconds away from crying) meets the most famous, and famously sexual, woman of the 20th Century, and his deep wells of candor permit her to bear her soul and reveal the hurt, wounded woman behind the pin-up bombshell. Or does she? The other possibility is that she's so intensely aware of her own persona that she understands that "broken little girl" is merely a part of her carefully-nurtured legend, and uses it as a weapon to get what she wants from Colin, viz. sex with a virile young man who is not ill-tempered playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).
I am not going to make statements beginning with, "The biggest problem with My Week with Marilyn", because it's almost nothing but problems, but certainly one of the most endemic, conceptual problems, which it was likely never going to survive, is that the story and the theme don't support each other. If we pretend that the female lead isn't one of the most iconic beings in the history of popular culture, what we basically have here is the story of an overly romantic boy who gets in way over his head in the soul-destroying world of actors and their egos, who falls head over heels in love with a woman who just needs, for a few days, somebody who won't treat her like a prop in his own self-obsessed life, leaving him stranded and wracked by the experience. It is, in essence, Colin's story. And the one and only thing that Hodges and Curtis care about is the biopicky striptease by which they share with us The Real Marilyn Monroe. That is a tension that is never resolved because nobody, not even Redmayne, appears to notice that it's there in the first place. Fuck, even Me and Orson Welles, which did almost nothing right besides fail to catch on fire as it ran through the projector, managed to nail that balance.
Even without that, of course, there's the question of how much more about The Real Marilyn Monroe we as a culture can possibly need. No half-century dead film star has been dissected and examined by more people from more perspectives than Monroe; the insight that she was a nervous woman, desperate for anyone to love her, who played a vivacious blonde goddess that was a famous movie star in front of everyone she ever knew might possibly be shockingly new to someone, somewhere, but that person is almost certainly not enough of a Monroe fan to give a shit about My Week with Marilyn in the first place.
Besides the which, the film doesn't say anything about Monroe, not even as regurgitation: it talks a lot about her, sure, but the whole thing is so strained and tentative that it doesn't really demonstrate what it's talking about. This is, in great part, Williams's fault: she is a great actress, and she does everything in her power to recreate Monroe's gestures, her way of walking, her breathy, ever-so-slightly dazed voice (the padding used to give her Monroe's shape is, sadly, much more of a distraction than a performance aid), and it's one of the most skillful bits of mimicry out of all the many attempts to capture this woman of all women in film. But being Marilyn Monroe shouldn't look like hard work - that's the whole point of Marilyn Monroe. When she was onscreen, playing a character that she made up to be her public face, it looks absolutely seamless, and that's as much a part of Monroe's genius as anything else. You want to see a movie that showcases the gulf between that seamless being-Marilyn and the bitter soul of Norma Jeane Baker? Watch Some Like It Hot (the actress's very next movie after The Prince and the Showgirl) and listen for the acid in the back of her voice as she says "I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop". There's more potency in that single line delivery than in all of William's performance, and the movie surrounding it ain't half-bad, either.
Just about the only part of the film that actually works is the moviemaking stuff, a nostalgic trip into Pinewood Studios of old, with lots of cattiness and British charm (as inordinately pleasant acting veteran Dame Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench steals all of her scenes and runs right out of the theater with them under her arm, cackling). It is here that we get the real star of the film: not Williams's exertions and certainly not Redmayne's bland, mildewy lead role, but Branagh's delectably robust performance as Olivier, presented her the comic foil to Monroe's light tragedy, a gargantuan presence with no patience at all for the severe Method acting favored by his leading lady - that Williams tries so hard to be Monroe while Branagh suggests Olivier only in the slightest degree is perhaps a tiny nod to the characters' vastly different styles - and a deliriously fun bitch who gets all of the movie's best lines (a favorite: directing Monroe is like "trying to teach Urdu to a badger") and gives it all of its life. It's not much - the film is still a hacky, obvious biopic, directed with a crabbed lack of visual flair, and marching through its predetermined story with stentorian dullness, it includes too many characters (Julia Ormond's Vivien Leigh; Emma Watson, in her first post-Potter role, as Colin's love interest; Toby Jones's burly American studio exec Arthur Jacobs) that go nowhere, and it's much too bubbly to survive a mid-film drop into drama. But it has Branagh camping it up as best he can. Take what you can when you get it.