At the beginning of My Week With Marilyn, we’re told it’s a true story. Since it’s based on a memoir, that statement should be taken with a grain of salt. Memoirs always offer one viewpoint of the truth, so they’re subjective. However, screenwriter Adrian Hodge has expanded the source material so that we are presented with a slice of time and get to observe the fascinating characters who passed through a moment of history while filming a fluffy romantic comedy.
The story is told through the eyes of memoirist Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who served as the third assistant director (read go-fer) on the 1957 movie The Prince and the Showgirl. Colin came from a distinguished family. His father, Lord Kenneth Clark, was a noted art historian who achieved popular fame hosting the 1969 television program Civilization. His older brother was a respected historian in his own right, and served in parliament. Add in an uncle who was the Queen’s librarian, and you have an intimidating family of overachievers. After college, Colin is unsure what to do. A chance meeting with Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) at a party helps him land his job with Olivier’s production company.
They are preparing the film version of “The Sleeping Prince” which was a comedy written by one of England’s greatest dramatists, Terrence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables). Olivier had done the original West End stage production in 1953 with his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). The movie version is to star the hottest actress in the world, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), with Monroe’s production company producing the film. Olivier will reprise his role and direct the movie. The title doesn’t survive the translation to film, and the movie becomes The Prince and the Showgirl.
Colin’s tasked with preparing for Marilyn’s stay in England, under the jaundiced eye of Monroe’s publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones). At the studio, Colin takes a shine to Lucy (Emma Watson) who works in the wardrobe department. But then Marilyn arrives, bringing along her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), the head of her production company Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and the chaos of celebrity.
Olivier’s professionalism immediately clashes with the self-indulgent Monroe. It doesn’t help that he detests method acting, while Monroe has brought along Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), her personal acting coach and the 2nd wife of the principle teacher and proponent of The Method in the US, Lee Strasberg. The very first day Monroe keeps the cast waiting while she tries to “find” her character, even though they’re just reading through the script. Marilyn does have one supportive voice in the cast in Dame Sybil Thorndyke (Judi Dench), a legendary actress who first appeared in silent films and for whom George Bernard Shaw wrote “St. Joan” in 1924.
Colin begins as a supporter of Olivier in his conflicts with Monroe, but as the movie progresses he becomes infatuated with her, and she begins to return his affection. He ignores the warning from Milton Greene that Marilyn will love him for a week, but then she’ll pull away and forget him.
The Motion Picture Academy might as well send out the Oscar ballots with a check mark already printed beside Michelle Williams’ name. While other actresses have done notable work this year worthy of nomination, such as Charlize Theron (Young Adult) and Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Williams submerges herself in the character of Marilyn. Or perhaps it would be better to say the characters. She captures all of Monroe’s sex appeal when facing the press or crowds of fans, and even sings songs such as “That Old Black Magic” in perfect Marilyn style. Yet she convincingly portrays the private, self-conscious and fragile Marilyn. In a telling scene, she and Colin meet a group of fans, and she refers to her public persona in the third person just before flipping a switch and becoming the Marilyn seen in newsreels.
Williams is the brightest star of the film, but there are other suns burning fiercely in the firmament. It is fitting that Branagh plays Olivier, since early in his career he was marked as the likely successor to Olivier’s crown. Branagh did force the comparison by beginning his movie career directing and starring in Henry V, the roles Olivier had filled in an earlier classic film. (Olivier remained in a class by himself, having been elevated to the House of Lords; the British theater awards are named after him.) Branagh’s career has had its fallow times, but 2011 was a very good year for him, between this role and directing the very successful adaptation of Thor. Olivier in My Week With Marilyn is in a transition period, trying to re-energize his film career yet seeing it waning. Branagh handles this with subtlety and restraint.
Eddie Redmayne hasn’t an easy role as Colin, since he’s the supporting orchestra for the solos played by Williams and Branagh. He does convincingly portray a youth who becomes infatuated with and protective of Monroe, but who’s also adult enough to finally realize it can’t last.
While she has only a couple of scenes, Julia Ormond is poignant as Vivien Leigh, who sees her husband drifting away from her. Emma Watson moves on from the Harry Potter series, portraying a beautiful but common young woman who can’t compete for Colin’s attention with a screen idol. Judi Dench is regally delightful as Sybil Thorndyke, giving us both the grand dame of the theater as well as a gracious veteran who supports the fledgling Marilyn.
TV director Simon Curtis, directing his first movie, and his production crew perfectly capture the England of the mid-1950’s, as well as the feel for making a movie at that time. (Watch for the scene of getting a chair for Marilyn.) They recreate the filming of the original movie from both before and behind the camera
Seeing the movie will set off reverberations for anyone with a knowledge of stage and film history. At one point Marilyn is upset when she reads notes Miller has made about her character. The notes eventually became Miller’s play After The Fall. In the movie, the making of The Prince and the Showgirl leaves Olivier disenchanted with film, and he tells Colin that he’s planning to return to the theater in a play written for him by John Osborne. The play was The Entertainer, and it was a triumph for Olivier that revived his career. He did a film version of the play in 1960 and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He remained busy on stage and screen until his death in 1989. Marilyn’s next project was the classic Some Like It Hot. Sadly, she only had 5 more years to live before her death in 1962, at age 36.
Vivien Leigh and Olivier would divorce three years after the film’s release. She’d struggled with bipolar disorder throughout her life, but it would be tuberculosis that would claim her in 1967. Dame Sybil outlived both Monroe and Leigh, dying in 1976 at the age of 94, after a 70 year career. Judi Dench actually knew Thorndyke in real life, having met her first backstage at the Old Vic in 1959 when Dench was performing in Romeo and Juliet. Dench has remarked on the accuracy of Hodges’ writing in capturing Dame Sybil.
The American characters had accomplishments that aren’t referred to in the film. Milton Greene, Marilyn’s production company partner, was a world-class photographer who shot some of the iconic images of her. Marilyn’s publicist, Arthur Jacobs, became a well-known producer, doing movies such as Dr. Doolittle, Play It Again Sam, and the original five movies in the Planet of the Apes series. In last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the head of the lab is called Jacobs in a tribute to him. Paula Strasburg survived Marilyn by only 4 years, dying in 1966 at age 55. Her daughter, Susan Strasburg, was a popular actress and also wrote a memoir about her relationship with Marilyn, whom she called her surrogate sister.
A final note about Michelle Williams’ performance: at the end of the movie, the screen shows three classic photographs of Marilyn Monroe. But after watching the movie, you’re not sure if the photos are of the real Marilyn or recreations with Williams. That succinctly sums up the quality of the performance.