For an introduction to My Week With Marilyn, you need only read my review of J. Edgar. It’s the same story. An oft-nominated, never-prized actor makes a bid for Oscar gold by playing a famous personality; sadly, the performance is better than the movie, and they go home empty-handed.
(Now, I’m not saying Michelle Williams is actively out there hunting for Oscars or anything, but when you’re playing Marilyn Fucking Monroe, the thought’s gotta cross your mind, at least.)
In fact, I’ll say many of the same things about My Week With Marilyn that I said about J. Edgar; you could almost just plug in the word “Marilyn” for “Edgar” and be done with it. They’re both about famously controversial figures who were, by many accounts deeply unhappy despite their successes. In both movies, a relationship with an “ordinary” person drives the story, but Edgar and Marilyn are battling personal demons that get in the way. And they’re both chockful of famous people.
Before we begin with Marilyn, however, I would like to state, for the record, that I despise movies that have the word “me” or “my” in the title in this fashion, a la Mac And Me and Me And Orson Wells. (I forgive older films like The King & I because, well, they’re old.) It’s off-putting. Films aren’t nearly as subjective as books written in first person (memoirs, in particular). Even if they’re narrated by the protagonist, we generally see scenes from other points of view as well; and even if not, the audience is rarely so invested in the lead character they feel as if they are experiencing everything through his eyes. So who’s “me”? It’s you.
Strangely enough, titles like All About My Mother and Drag Me To Hell I am fine with. Maybe just because they’re more interesting. But there’s nothing more boring than merely slapping a famous person’s name in a title and adding “me” to it. (FYI: I am also not generally a fan of titles that are just a character’s name, unless it is a super awesome name. I mean, how lazy can you get?) One Week With Marilyn is not a stellar title, but I would have preferred it. That’s all I’m saying.
Okay, now that that’s settled. My Week With Marilyn is the supposedly true story of Colin Clark, who quite easily attains a job as Laurence Olivier’s assistant on a movie called The Prince And The Showgirl, starring Marilyn Monroe. We have no way of knowing whether or not everything he reports in his memoir My Week With Marilyn is accurate, so let’s just assume that it is (even though many surmise that it is probably not). Essentially, Ms. Monroe fights with her husband (esteemed playwright Arthur Miller) and turns to the lowly 3rd AD Colin for help, they spend some time frolicking about in streams and such, and then she feels the seven day itch and moves on.
That’s about it, as far as plot goes. Like many stories about famous people, this one is content to bask in the radiance of its subject — perhaps the most iconic movie star of all time. It’s all about the legend of Marilyn Monroe — her sex appeal, her substance abuse, her failed relationships. And if that isn’t enough, there are a host of other famous faces to gawk at — Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Arthur Miller. You can’t really blame a movie like My Week With Marilyn for stuffing in as many high-wattage personalities as possible — that’s the reason people see these films. But on the other hand, it’s lethargic storytelling. Such films are usually happier throwing in recognizable faces than actually developing their roles in the story; they’re caricatures more than characters. That’s what you’re in for.
So it comes as no surprise that this movie’s strong suit is in giving us two hours with Marilyn — and thus why Michelle Williams is getting Oscar buzz even in a film that was lukewarmly-reviewed. (A critical darling twice-nominated, it would likely be her year to win if the film were stronger.) At first, it’s jarring to see Williams try to embody a woman so iconic; it’s not that we’re all so familiar with Marilyn’s performances and mannerisms. I doubt most Americans under a certain age have even seen a Marilyn Monroe movie. It’s just that we have this idea built in our own minds of what she’s like — glamorous, bewitching, ditzy. Michelle Williams plays all of those things, but the resemblance between them isn’t striking. Gradually, though, as we see more of Marilyn, we start to marry the image we have of her with Williams’ performance on screen.
My Week With Marilyn‘s Marilyn is a diva through-and-through — she shows up late to set, she demands constant attention, she thinks of no one but herself. She’s not a very good actress — she forgets her lines and seems utterly confused about her character. But she has charisma that, the movie believes, goes unmatched, and that’s why she’s a star. Everyone coddles her, save Olivier — even Colin tells her what she wants to hear when asked. This Marilyn is extremely vulnerable and volatile, prone to mood swings, a heartbreaker. She uses men to boost her self-confidence. We get the sense that Colin could have been any star-struck boy on the movie set. There’s nothing specific about him that Marilyn likes; she barely even sees him, and displays no curiosity about what might be going on in his mind.I’m not sure if this is actually written into the script or it can all attributed to Michelle Williams, but it gives the movie the closest thing to a point it has, and it’s the most interesting aspect of the movie. Is one week enough? The movie leaves us wanting more, in order to flesh out our understanding of her. We never get quite a solid grasp on who she is and what’s driving her, and we’re probably not meant to; but then, we also don’t get a complete grasp of how things are on the other side of the relationship, either.
Therein lies the problem with these glimpses at fame from an outsider. Colin Clark is meant to be our Everyman, which usually means the character is lifeless and a little dull on his own. True here as well. The film begins, as too many do, with the main character’s voice-over giving us information we could probably intuit. (Recently guilty: J. Edgar and The Descendants.) Often, this comes as a result of lack of confidence in post-production. Studios are desperate to over-explain everything in their movies, and often err on the side of lumping it into a big chunk right at the beginning of the movie. Ew! Colin’s narration only occurs at the beginning of the movie — that’s a tell. Maybe it’s the USC screenwriter in me, but I am instantly turned off by voice-over narration unless it’s really integrated into the story. (See: American Beauty, Sunset Boulevard, and many more. It can be done well.) And when you’re starting a movie off with a character as blank and guileless as Colin Clark, you better take him somewhere pretty damn intriguing. Instead, as Colin, Eddie Redmayne is asked to do very, very little, besides carry the movie with his winning personality.
Redmayne is a good actor; so either Colin Clark did not write all that compelling of a book, or he’s just not a very interesting person. A problem with memoirs is that often, the author has a hard time developing him or herself as a character, which is why everyone surrounding our protagonist is so much more vivid. You might think, well, that’s not a problem in a movie like this — Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, & co. are more fascinating than Colin Clark. Sure. But then why insert yourself into the story at all, Colin? I suppose My Week With Marilyn wants us to identify with the boyish Colin and imagine what it’d be like if we were suddenly seduced by the world’s brightest star. But do you see yourself as blank and doe-eyed as Colin is portrayed here? I don’t. And that’s why I had a problem feeling like he in any way represented me, or anyone.
Colin starts naive and stays naive. He begins in awe of Marilyn and stays there. We learn that the other men in Marilyn’s life resent her self-absorption, but Colin never does. He never seems bothered by the fact that he loves someone who seems to only love herself. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of Marilyn Monroe, and perhaps too flattering a portrait of Colin Clark. His actions never become interesting. He never drives the story. Did Colin really behave so politely and composedly when (allegedly) romanced by the world’s biggest star? His feelings for the movie star never rise above puppy love, a mere crush. Hers, probably even less. And if that’s all they were, why is there a movie about it?
Harry Potter‘s Emma Watson has a small, underwritten part as a girl Colin fancies — until Marilyn Monroe comes along, anyway; this, which could have been key, goes nowhere. (It doesn’t help that Emma Watson is saddled with such a bad wig. At least, I hope that’s a wig.) In order for the movie to truly work, some kind of drama, some fiery passion, needs to happen on Colin’s end of the story, be it with Marilyn or anyone else. He has no arc. In the end, we are led to believe that Marilyn broke his heart “a little,” but she didn’t, really. We never see that. None of the relationships in this film are fleshed out; all we get is the pleasure of gazing at stars. Which, as we all know, is done from quite a distance.
My Week With Marilyn is the first non-TV-movie feature from both screenwriter Adrian Hodge and director Simon Curtis, and it shows. This has the weight of a televised story, not a film. Sure, it’s fun to spend a week (or any amount of time) with Marilyn Monroe. Her flirtation with Colin holds your attention. They kiss a few times, hold hands, skinny dip. The film makes excellent use of naked Marilyn Monroe in multiple scenes, but beyond that, it’s all very sweet and innocent. And there are lively supporting turns from the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Dominic Cooper, and Toby Keith to pass the time. But in the end, it’s just a lark. A diversion. It hardly seems worthy of Marilyn.
I often end up sounding more negative about films than I actually intend, and such is true of the breezy, entertaining My Week With Marilyn. It’s a lot like its titular starlet, actually, in that it may not be the most capable or competent at what it does, but when it gets it right, it’s perfectly charming.