My Week With Marilyn

Falling in love for ninety minutes

Forget the Mayans: when there comes a generation of boys who don’t fall in love with Marilyn Monroe, that’s when you know the world is truly ending and human sensibilities deteriorating.

My Week With Marilyn is not so much a biopic about Marilyn’s life as it is a slice of Colin Clark’s (if his memoir is to be believed), and a drive-by look at the contrast between how Marilyn was regarded and treated not only in Hollywood, but overseas.  The story follows Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he takes a chance on becoming third assistant director (a glorified errand boy) for The Prince and the Showgirl, a film which despite being unsuccessful and panned by critics propelled Marilyn and Laurence Olivier (played expertly by Kenneth Branagh) into the heights of their respective careers.  During the shoot, Marilyn is on her honeymoon with new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and being the proverbial “stranger in a strange land,” struggles with the conventions and pressures of Olivier’s world.  Clark attempts to acclimate her into British society, and the two develop what Clark thinks is a blazing romance.  But it isn’t.  We know that.  Marilyn knows that.  She is lonely, afraid, drugged up (not by choice), and sporadically ill, and Clark is the only person who is nice to her.

The film, directed by Simon Curtis, paints a fair picture of Marilyn from the beginning.  Hollywood follows her everywhere.  She is fed pills by assistants who are supposed to be taking care of her, and their only reasoning is that she’s difficult to “control.”  This animal treatment extends to every extremity of her life, from the way her entourage simultaneously parade her around and shield her from the public to the way they cage her in temporary homes with constant surveillance.  Furthermore, they refer to her sweet, jovial personality as an “act.”  But we’re fully convinced.  She doesn’t even seem to know she’s “sexy” until Olivier blurts out on set that her portrayal of Elsie Marina isn’t utilizing her “natural talents.”  These scenes, while beautiful, also hurt.  Here was a woman idealized, abused, and misunderstood by virtually everyone she came into contact with.  Her depressions were misinterpreted as entitlement, her acting methods conflated with confusion.  The phrase “no one else understands you” is spoken to Marilyn by various characters, but they, we must suspect, are farthest from understanding.

Kenneth Branagh shines as Olivier, and is allowed to be a dedicated artist and a commanding boss, but also a bit of a blowhard and a relieving presence.  His feelings about Marilyn transform completely over the course of the film, and less than a month in her presence contorts his life in vicious ways.  Branagh even quotes Shakespeare at one point – he just can’t seem to get away from it.  Also in the supporting cast are Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike; Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s overprotective acting coach who clashes with Olivier in some excellent banter-laced scenes; and Emma Watson (finally ditching Hermione) as Lucy, a young woman working in wardrobe, who begins as Clark’s love interest but turns out to be a backup plan.  Refreshingly, she seems to always be the one calling the shots in her scenes with Redmayne, even in the end.  Scott’s portrayal of Arthur Miller is exactly how you’d think Hollywood people look at writers: frustrated, bothered, weathered in the face, and perpetually grubby.  Who would have known he was about to write The Crucible?

The film’s best sequence is Clark and Marilyn’s first real day together, which begins when Clark, who has been banned from being near Marilyn, is ushered into a car by Marilyn’s bodyguard.  As he sits down, afraid, unsure, and the car begins moving, Marilyn pops out from under a blanket and claims that this is “the getaway car.”  It’s the one scene in which we bear witness to, perhaps, Marilyn’s real personality, free of her caretakers and feeling like she’s having an adventure of her own design.  The scenes that follow rival any romantic film of the year.  The drama is slightly lessened in that we know they don’t end up together, but there is a certain fascination involved: Clark, mistaking infatuation for love, forgets that he’s seven years Marilyn’s junior and that she spoke to him like a child earlier.  The shift in relationship dynamic is staggering, but Clark seems to be the only one who doesn’t see it (of course, later, he must).

The Oscar for Best Actress may already bear the scent of Michelle Williams, the spitting image of Marilyn not only in the film makeup and wig, but even more so in voice and aura.  If she wins for this film, it will be a well-deserved victory for her, but also, considering the material, a victory for Marilyn.

My Week With Marilyn (2011); written by Adrian Hodges; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Redmayne.