I'm both at an advantage and disadvantage in regards to My Week With Marilyn. Advantage: I've read Barbara Leaming's wonderful biography of Monroe, which goes into the chaotic and highly problematic production of The Sleeping Prince, her first feature under her own production company and her first foray into acting after her training at the Actor's Studio. Disadvantage: I have never seen The Prince and the Showgirl (as The Sleeping Prince was retitled after it was felt box office would be helped if the title included Monroe's character, or at least persona) no matter how often I've had the chance to do so. Therefore, I go into My Week With Marilyn with some idea as to the backstage confusion, resentments, and/or bitter recriminations The Prince and the Showgirl evoked from its two stars, Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier, but without having the final product to see whether their tortured collaboration bore anything good. From what I do know, My Week With Marilyn got a great deal of the behind-the-scenes difficulties right, but whether it got the actual story of the relationship between Monroe and Colin Clark (whose memoir The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me the film is based on) I cannot say.
My Week With Marilyn really is less about Monroe or the actual production of The Prince and the Showgirl. Instead, it's the story of young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) the youngest son of a privileged background who does not want to be an intellectual like his father and brother. Rather, he wants to go into showbusiness--in a switch, he wants to work behind the camera. With persistence and a vague promise from Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), Colin gets a job of 3rd assistant director on his new film, one starring Sir Larry and an American...the legendary Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), recently married to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). Colin, like all men, is excited to see and work with Monroe, but we soon see that she's a rather...delicate person.
She shows up late, doesn't know her lines, and is extremely dependent on the Method style of acting as well as her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). Each item by itself sends co-star/director Olivier batty, but all together it makes working with her a nightmare. Not that he doesn't make matters worse: berating and bullying the visibly fragile star, he goes one too far when he tells her to use her natural talents and be 'sexy': the worse thing he could tell someone desperate to be thought of as a serious actress. While another Prince & The Showgirl co-star, Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) shows Monroe (in fact, showed everyone) genuine kindness (at one point putting Sir Larry in his place for how he treats her in front of both of them), most everyone appears exasperated by Monroe's behavior: from her guard Roger (Phillip Jackson) to her producing partner Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper). Only Colin appears bedazzled by her beauty.
Colin, however, forgets that he too has become smitten, with costume assistant Lucy (Emma Watson). He wants to romance her, and she's open to it, but she also understands no woman could ever compete with Marilyn Monroe. In that glorious but too brief time Colin spends with the goddess, she all but kidnaps him, and in their journey go to Windsor Castle where his connections allow a brief visit to his godfather, royal librarian Sir Owen Morehead (Derek Jacobi), his old school of Eton, and finally, a quick swim. Whether they actually became lovers is not specifically shown but is implied. However, her needs are many, and she cuts him off. Somehow, The Prince and the Showgirl is finished. However, while Olivier knows Monroe has great screen presence and has great qualities within her, the experience is so disheartening he never directs another film. Colin eventually moves on, always carrying memories of his week with Marilyn.
Again and again, I couldn't help think of Me and Orson Welles while watching My Week With Marilyn. The primary reason for it is because like in the former, the latter really isn't about the star in question. Rather, it's about the person connected with said star. I don't begrudge them this, after all, the story should be primary about the narrator and how he sees the famous person they are working alongside of. That being said, the fact that Monroe is really a secondary character should not be a big source of frustration, except to Monroe fans who may expect a behind-the-scenes profile of their favorite star.
That may be why My Week With Marilyn takes a great deal of time focusing on Colin: on his desires to enter that world of filmmaking, his eagerness to please everyone around him, and his connection with the most famous woman in cinema. There isn't a great deal of just how fraught with difficulty the production of The Prince and the Showgirl was, and this is best seen whenever Julia Ormond's Vivien Leigh appears. She had originated the role on the stage, so something could have been made of Lady Olivier being replaced by a much younger woman. It also could have dealt into Leigh's manic-depression, which made things extremely difficult for Olivier. In short, he was under extreme duress himself: a mad woman at work, a mad woman at home.
Also, while there are hints as to the tensions in the early days of the Miller-Monroe marriage, there are only one or two scenes dealing with it, both very short. In fact, Miller is almost non-existent in My Week With Marilyn, to where (despite his needed presence) one wonders whether he had a role there at all.
He wasn't the only one short-changed. Watson isn't the greatest actress in the world (I'm one of the few who was not overwhelmed by Hermione Granger) but she isn't given all that much to do in the film.
However, on the whole the major roles are given greater attention. Branagh (dare I call him the Olivier of his generation) brings both a prickliness and vulnerability, even fear, to Olivier, someone who sees a danger in both the Method (which he detests) and who is unhappy about both Monroe's lack of punctuality and his own sense that life is slipping away from him. Dench's Dame Sybil is a source of proper British behavior and professionalism along with genuine fascination and kindness for everyone, an actress who knows what pressure everyone was under. Wanamaker, granted, appeared to be channeling another Sybil (Branagh's ex-wife Emma Thompson's Sybil Trelawney from Harry Potter) with her large glasses and black garb, but she did show both how she was able to pump up Monroe and do damage by making the fragile star depend wholly on her for directing (which must have caused a professional like Olivier fits of fury).
Another highlight is Cooper's Milton Greene. I'm amazed at just how well and efficient his American accent is (so authentic it even sounds like he's an actual New Yorker) to where we forget he's actually British. Unfortunately, it wasn't a large role, and for most of the film he was reduced to being a short-tempered individual rather than one who was way over his head in the producing side.
Now, as to our actual leads, Redmayne brought a wide-eyed fascination to his Colin, one who appears to realize that making films can be a trying experience. Throughout the film, Colin remains dangerously close to permanent naivete, but given the story, we're willing to give a little way in the performance. As for Williams, there are certainly moments when she appears to look so much like Monroe we could be forgiven in thinking she was Monroe. I think she did as good a job at getting the distinctive screen image of Marilyn Monroe as we've seen in a long time. She does convince people that the woman was both a wreck and a wrecker, badly damaged and damaging to everyone around her.
My one caveat on Williams as Monroe is that I wonder if director Simon Curtis couldn't have had her tone down the breathy, distinctive "Marilyn Monroe" voice. Having seen footage of her interviews, Monroe did not always speak in that particular baby-like sotto voce, and it would have been good to get Williams to make her on occasion rage rather than be perpetually frightened. However, Michelle Williams did a great job of doing a strong Marilyn Monroe interpretation as opposed to either impersonation or caricature, and for this she should be congratulated.
This is where I would say that Adrian Hodges' script would have been best served to, like in Me and Orson Welles, focused more on the difficulties The Prince and the Showgirl had and less on how Colin Clark was a protector to Monroe. The story of how both Olivier and Monroe were facing dramatic personal and professional struggles that this film brought them makes for an interesting story in and of itself, so there's very little need to have Colin's romances to keep us fully interested. A little less Me and a little bit more Monroe would go a long way.
However, again on the whole these are details that don't take away from the strong performances by Williams and Branagh or the overall interesting story in My Week With Marilyn. There's never been a definitive Marilyn Monroe biopic, and My Week With Marilyn ain't it. She really is a supporting character in this story (again, given that it's Colin's version of events, I don't hold it against the movie). I can't say the film is as great as the projects Monroe and Olivier made after The Prince and the Showgirl (Some Like It Hot and The Entertainer respectively) or even The Prince and the Showgirl itself. What I can say is that My Week With Marilyn has its share of problems, but the overall results are quite good (a bit like Monroe herself).
Forever beautiful, forever lost, forever lovelorn, simply Forever...