A film review by Craig J. Koban February 1, 2012


2011, R, 99 mins.


Marilyn Monroe: Michelle Williams / Colin Clark: Eddie Redmayne / Laurence Olivier: Kenneth Branagh / Milton Greene: Dominic Cooper / Vivien Leigh: Julia Ormond / Arthur Miller: Dougray Scott

Directed by Simon Curtis / Written by Adrian Hodges, based on the diaries by Colin Clark.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN concerns two past heavyweights of the movie world (Sir Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe) and how these pair of hopelessly incompatible actors managed to work together on the 1957 film THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL.  

At its most compelling, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN represents a clash of performance styles: Olivier’s classical trained stage skills versus Monroe’s somewhat misguided efforts to adopt Lee Strasberg’s “Method” approach.  Monroe was clearly not in the same thespian hemisphere as her elder and vastly more experienced British co-star, but she had something that even Olivier would confess to not possessing: a glamorous and magnetically alluring screen presence - derived from no formal acting training - that overrode her deficiencies as a performer.  Monroe was a natural movie star, something that both frustrated – and quietly impressed – Olivier. 

I greatly enjoyed that aspect of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN: Olivier’s amplified aggravation with having to deal with a limitedly gifted actress who strove to adopt a performance style that he publicly loathed.  When the film settles in on evoking the behind-the-scenes activities of a long lost and almost extinct era of filmmaking, it becomes kind of infectiously involving.  The other – and more publicized – angle of the film is more sensationalized and less enthralling.  The film is based on Colin Clark’s infamous THE PRINCE, THE SHOWGIRL, AND ME and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, diary accounts that documented his time on the set as an Olivier's assistant during the filming of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL.  His diaries, published in the 1990’s, detailed his time spent with Monroe and a supposed brief fling between them.  

Whether or not Clark’s writings on the matter are factual or not is not the problem with MY WEEK WITH MARILYN; it’s problem is that it never gives us a compelling portrait of the iconic 1950’s sex bomb, which consequently makes the film feel incomplete.  Monroe was as much of a publicly adored celebrity as she was a curious enigma to her fans, which the film definitely captures.  Yet, the Monroe presented here is just a laundry list of obligatory character traits that we are all already abundantly familiar with: she had a childlike naiveté; an endlessly sultry allure; a warm, inviting, and bubbly personality; and when she made an entrance on screen no one was looking at anyone else.  She also was deeply troubled: she drank, took pills, was unlucky with men (she had three husbands by the time she was 30-years-old) and was notoriously reclusive, selfish and unreliable on a movie set.  By the end of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN I left the theater learning really nothing new about the starlet than what I already did going in. 

The film begins in the summer of 1956 where young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne, a somewhat bland, but enthusiastic performer) was fresh out of Oxford and yearned to become a big filmmaking talent.  Through dogged persistence, he manages to find a job as a lowly assistant to Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who at the time was widely considered to be the greatest living actor in the world.   Olivier is about to star in and direct a new romantic comedy, THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, and seems very keen on working with Monroe (Michelle Williams), mostly because, deep down, he was a notorious flirt and is attracted to the actress.  Monroe, on the other hand, sees working with Olivier as a chance to shed her sexpot image and become a serious actress of substance. 



Within the first few days of shooting trouble begins to mount: Firstly, Monroe seems deeply unhappy with her life (her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller – played by Dougray Scott - is a bumpy one) and she seems incapable of arriving on set in a timely fashion every day.  Then there is her aforementioned desire to utilize “The Method” in her performance and her insistence on bring Strasberg’s second wife, Paula (Zoe Wanamaker), to England with her to meticulous plot out every bit of her performance on set, much to Olivier’s increased chagrin.  Olivier’s ever-growing frustration on set leads to him chastising the reliability and lack of skills of his younger and greener co-star, which further makes her lose her confidence that much more.  Then to make matters worse, Miller leaves Monroe and heads back to the States, leaving his wife all alone, disheartened, and frequently gorging on pills and booze.  Monroe, though, does develop a liking to Colin and begins to demand that he accompanies her on a daily basis to starve off loneliness, but then their initial friendship becomes something else.  Can you blame Colin for being so instantly smitten with the most famous actress in the world? 

For any modern actors to play two of the most renowned movie performers of all-time is a thanklessly daunting task, to be sure.  If the lead performances don’t work then a film like this is sunk.  Michelle Williams, at first glance, may not seem like a dead ringer for Monroe (she only has a fleeting resemblance to her and definitely is not as curvy and voluptuous as her).  Yet, Williams goes beyond superficial physical similarities and fully immerses herself within the psyche of Monroe and lovingly and faithfully brings the essence of her thrillingly to life.  Not only does she intuitively and successfully mimic all of the subtle nuances of Monroe – her arousing strut, her sinful, yet innocent pout, her natural charm and charisma, her delicately soft voice, and her sweetly flirtatious demeanor – but Williams also captures the star of infamous legend: the naggingly unconfident actress that struggles with performance inadequacy and, as a result, one that allows herself to foolishly wallow in addictive patterns of self-abuse.   Williams’ very performance kind of subverts the screenplay’s limited portrayal of Monroe. 

In actuality, I found Branagh’s assignment of inhabiting Olivier to be the trickier of the two main performances.  Branagh, like Olivier, is a classically trained Shakespearian actor, but he has also had to deal with comparisons to Olivier all throughout his career.  Initially, Branagh’s portrayal of “Sir Larry” seems stilted, cold, and impenetrably mannered to the point of self-deprecating parody, but as the film progresses a fully blown portrait of Olivier as the fastidious perfectionist arrives, one that is impatient, vain, prone to wild verbal outbursts of anger, and seems smugly self-congratulatory about his worthiness as an actor and director (Monroe represented everything he was not as a performer).  Yet, Branagh allows for Olivier’s own vulnerabilities to shine through as well: Whereas Monroe was intimidated by the status of Olivier as an experienced and revered actor, Olivier was, in turn, kind of intimidated – and frequently in awe – of how an actress like Monroe could so easily and naturally take command of a scene. 

I guess, in the end, Branagh and Williams manage to imbue some psychological complexity into their roles that the screenplay never really affords them.  At 90 minutes, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is perhaps too short and quick tempered to really invest in a thoroughly captivating distillation of Monroe that does not just involve playing up to all of her most publicized quirks.  The love story between her and Colin also seems to work on pure auto-pilot.  MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is a real contradiction at times: it’s contains a superlative cast at the top of their games working within the tight and restricted foundations of a borderline average and imperfect script.  There is very little embellishing of the Monroe as a character, movie star icon, and doomed persona than what we have already been exposed to.  It’s a bit of a shame, because MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is too enraptured by rosy showbiz nostalgia for its own good, but at least Williams and Branagh give this unsophisticated and simple-minded film a veneer of depth and complexity.   

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