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NYFF: "My Week With Marilyn" 

Poor Marilyn. The press hounded her. Fans would tear off pieces of her soul if they could. Co-stars and directors dissed her. Men wouldn't leave her alone (not that she wanted them to). And now Simon Curtis is holding yet another Monroe seance -- her soul will never rest in peace -- with his feature film debut My Week With Marilyn (2011),  a "true" story about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).

True must come with quotes. The film is based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, the third assistant director on the "lightest of comedies" directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Can we trust the awestruck account of a young movie dreamer's version of his friendship and quasi-romance with the world's most famous actress? My Week With Marilyn emphatically does despite the amusingly placcid (if repetitive) moonyness with which the talented Eddie Redmayne portrays him, as if he's just as doped up as Marilyn, but much smarter about his cocktails of choice.

"Surprise!" Marilyn escapes with Colin Clark, lowly third assistant directorClark was 23 going on 24 when he met the immortal bombshell while hustling into the movies, landing his first job on a set through the help of his father's connections, despite the fact that the father did not approve of him 'running off to the circus'. The details of Clark's adventure in the movies are both acted out and explained to us in voiceover in the film's inelegant screenplay, which prefers for the characters to state the obvious or speak their psychologies aloud. Sometimes they even speak Marilyn's aloud; in the great transitive powers of true celebrity, everyone on earth is her psycho-therapist. Sometimes this obviousness of speech has comic payoffs (the film works best as a comedic clash between proper British theatrical training and idiot-savant American stardom) and once it even pays off both dramatically and comedically in a sadly funny scene where Colin Clark tells it like it is, succinctly, to Marilyn. He understands Marilyn and Olivier's mirrored goals and prophesies the failure of the movie.

Thought Balloons as dialogue and Michelle's performance after the jump...

Most of the time however this Thought Balloon style of dialogue is frustrating. Julia Ormond, in particular, is charged with the very thankless job of reducing the great Vivien Leigh (whose actual psychology was just as fascinating as Marilyn's) to a stand-in for all Actresses Past Their Primes and Worried Hollywood Wives With Unfaithful Husbands.

Clark (Eddie Redmayne) and Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) find Marilyn impossible(y charming)

There's a lot that's very easy to enjoy about My Week With Marilyn particularly if you, like me, thrill to movies about showbiz. The scenes on set are generally the strongest, as they aren't overreaching for psychological effect but are closer to the light comedy attempted in the 1957 film. On the set Dame Judi Dench gives texture to peace-keeping Dame Sybil Thorndike, Kenneth Branagh amply rewards his brilliant casting as the fuming, exasperated and vain Sir Laurence Olivier (ink him in to the Best Supporting Actor shorlist) and Michelle Williams beautifully captures Marilyn's deer in the headlights terror, her blinding self-doubt amplified by paranoia. (Many paranoid people have the sensation that all eyes are on them. In Marilyn's case this was fact).

Marilyn Monroe herself is first introduced on the (literal) screen as Clark watches her perfoming a musical number in a movie. Michelle/Marilyn's entrances then and throughout the film are often jazzed up with flashblub freezes, heavy scoring, lighting tricks, and much onscreen fuss. For a good long while it's hard to see Williams's actual performance through all the gimmicky myth-making sweat of the filmmakers. Williams isn't quite a born mimic but she does a worthwhile enough and engaging approximation of Marilyn's mannerisms and voice and even does a fine job singing Marilyn's songs! (Here's another famous actress who can sing! Hollywood has zero excuses left to not be making more musicals). Williams is, no surprise, most impressive in the dramatic scenes and absolutely heartbreaking once she's playing the goddess muted, slurring and narcotized.

Still, Marilyn Monroe can often be successfully caricatured (which Williams avoids) but never quite recreated. She was too much of an original, her own performative masterpiece. Late in the film there's a moment where Marilyn asks Colin if she should "do" Marilyn while they're out in public. Williams immediately starts posing and blowing kisses and the like, amping up the Marilynness of Marilyn, as the legend herself was known to do. But this scene and others like it have a curiously artificial feel in comparison to the quieter scenes. "Marilyn" was, famously, a character that Marilyn Monroe herself was always performing. But Monroe's genius was that this character never felt like a performance even while the character (MARILYN) performed other characters in the movies (Sugar, Elsie, Lorelei, Roslyn, etcetera), sometimes strenuously. To repurpose Dolly Parton's self assessment: Marilyn may have looked fake, but she was real where it counted.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

You could, with some qualifications, say the same thing about Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. Williams looks fake as Marilyn (the padding sadly shows and though a beauty herself, she can't replicate Marilyn's carnality) but she's real where it counts especially when detailing Marilyn's painful dreams of being a Great Actress. Unfortunately she can't conjure Marilyn's most pitiable and most miraculous of contradictions; for all her torturous effort on set there was in Marilyn as Marilyn, a breathtaking effortlessness of being.

Effortlessness is not something one can claim for the movie either, though it's promisingly "frothy" for its first half. Eventually it becomes clear that My Week With Marilyn is less interested in comedy and eager to be something like a besotted double hagiography. It shows you Marilyn's terrible behavior on set but expects quite adamantly that you be "on her side" and it also plays like a strange ode to Colin Clark himself. It can't quite bring itself to end. In one of the too-many endings it comforts you with another Marilyn & Colin moment, after she has dismissed him for good and then cruelly toyed with his affections by promising to wink at him later on set. Their last scene together coddles you with "see, she did really love him!" but it's better to have us wondering what was real and fake about the goddesses's affections than to give us extra time to ponder what is real and fake about the self-flattering memoirs we've just seen illustrated.  C+

Previously on NYFF
Shame is found electrifying and somewhat lacking by Michael.
Martha Marcy May Marlene inducts Nathaniel in its growing cult.
The Kid With a Bike races into Kurt's hearts.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World is music to Michael's ears.
A Separation floors Nathaniel. A frontrunner for the Oscar?
The Student makes Nathaniel cram for quizzes that never come.
Carnage raises its voice at Nathaniel but doesn't quite scream.
Miss Bala wins the "must-see crown" from judge Michael.
Tahrir drops Michael right down in the titular Square.
A Dangerous Method excites Kurt... not in that way, perv!
The Loneliest Planet brushes against Nathaniel's skin.
Melancholia shows Michael the end of von Trier's world. 

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Reader Comments (18)

So will Michelle get the nomination or not? I can't really decide.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdinasztie

I think she"ll have to fright for it. she's getting mixed reviews.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChand

What a completely great review! And I bet this movie wasn't easy to write about.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNIck Davis

So you think she will get the nomination? Can't wait to read your oscar update predictions.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

I liked your review but I am puzzled. If you enjoyed the movie as much as it seems, why the c+? Doesn't an entertaining and well acted guilty pleasure deserved better?

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

I totally agree with the script's flaws but I found this movie very entertaining nevertheless. And Williams should get credit for not doing a terrible impersonation of a legend. She is quite effective in the quieter scenes. I'll take this over the pretentious Take Shelter any day.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Nick -- it wasn't and it was as I've been a Monroe fan since i was like 12... so i've thought too much about her already ;) but thank you! the hardest part, i found, in evaluating it is determining what MIchelle Williams is doing beyond what the script does and doesn't ask of her. In some ways Marilyn is way too much of a ink-blot. So many things have been written and said and felt about her that almost anything goes which i think can cover up a lot of indecision about who she was which would then read as ambiguity even if it's merely fuzzy characterization. does that make sense?

Seisgrados -- it's just. so much of it is so suspect. I don't like the "true story" tags for one sided recall which is a sticking point because the movie does a lot of conjectury things about what went on. and you're never not aware that you're watching a movie trying to be about other movies and a famous star so it's not truly transporting as it were. and i also think it's just really clumsy in terms of storytelling. (but yes i did totally enjoy the performances... even if they aren't "perfect" per se)

October 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Another beautifully written review, Nathaniel! Sometimes your best reviews are the ones for films in the C catagory - films that have some virtues (especially covering subjects you are passionate about, and this one should have been entirely up your bailiwick) but don't quite make it, never quite reach the full potential of their promise.

When I was scrolling down that top photo of Michelle as Marilyn reminded me, for some reason, of Carol Channing.

//"Julia Ormond, in particular, is charged with the very thankless job of reducing the great Vivien Leigh (whose actual psychology was just as fascinating as Marilyn's) to a stand-in for all Actresses Past Their Primes and Worried Hollywood Wives With Unfaithful Husbands."//

That is just so wrong on so many levels I don't know where to begin. The cliched role is so, so so old; I think Julia Ormond has grown tremendously as an actress in the past few years, to the point that her name is now one that peaks my interest; and where the hell is Vivian Leigh's biographical film? Of course, they'd screw it up anyway...

It doesn't help that I am apparently one of the few people walking the earth (or at least, interested in films) who never "got" the fascination with Marilyn. Yes she was lovely and funny and surprising in Some Like it Hot, playing into rather than against her type; I know she's done underseen dramatic work and, yes, there are the themes of "little girl lost", the celebrity culture, etc etc. I'm just not "into" her, I guess, or rather I think the fascination with her is so blown out of proportion. Of course, someone is making a very, very good living keeping her image in front of her (merchandising of her name and face) which makes the entire thing seem that much more ironic and cruel.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Janice -- it's no crime not to be into Marilyn. But i think it is very much a crime for the movie to pretend that VIVIEN LEIGH was merely "the wife of Olivier" or "an actress past her prime". She only gave two of the greatest performances in the history of cinema and she was just as crazy as Marilyn offscreen -- her biopic would be filled with Oscar clips ;)

October 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Marilyn is just fine, but she's been done to dead. There are so many other actresses worthy of biopic status that people always gloss over. As you mentioned, Vivien Leigh, and also Garbo, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich...just name a few fascinating crazies from our Hollywood past.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

This is kind of what I thought Williams would be like, sort of surfacey and never really getting to the heart of who Marilyn Monroe really was. Maybe no one can. It's been done so much over the years, and this breezy take on things might not have been the way to go. Williams seems miscast to me, but I still think she can get nominated. This is bio-pic territory, and Oscar loves that. I still want to see this very much, whenever I'm allowed to when/if it gets to my area.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOrion

I thought the Vivien Leigh sections, small as they are, to be the worst parts of the movie. Ormond does nothing with the part.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Is she getting a nomination or are we thinking it's now viola davis's too loose until meryl arrives.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrripley

What an amazing analysis of this film. Never been quite agog over any review you have written. You articulated in such a concise and erudite manner what I experienced the film to be.

October 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

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October 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdunk high premium

You couldn't be more wrong about this film. This is a young man's fantasy that just happened to have happened to him. Since it is based on his memoir it is through his eyes, not meant to be an historical account. It is neither artificial nor clumsy. It plays and is constructed Old Style Hollywood which works extremely well. The movie is amusing, sensitive, and full of wonderful performances. The audience I saw it with was completely captivated by it. I have a hard time believing we saw the same film as you.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank

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March 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterxpfarb xpfarb

Love that real Marilyn Fans notice that she can't be duplicated as much as I love Michelle Williams she comes off artificial at times and try's to hard to capture Marilyn but at least she did better than most of them out there ever could .Michelle did an excellent job with Marilyn's voice and at times captured some sadness there but we will never have another Marilyn because her secret is that she was Norma Jean under all that and her need to be loved drew people to her.

July 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermay

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