My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011)

26Nov11

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Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Kenneth Branagh (Sir Laurence Olivier), Emma Watson (Lucy), Judi Dench (Dame Sybil Thorndike). Screenplay by Adrian Hodges. Directed by Simon Curtis. Running time: 99 minutes.

Nothing appealed to me more this summer than the thought of soon seeing Michelle Williams acting as Marilyn, strolling the streets of Mayfair. What a thought, what a sight, and what a treat that this film turns out to be full of such moments! For all its mildly frustrating narrative simplicities, nothing calls for such tedious flaws to be tossed aside quite like Williams’ take on Marilyn’s adorable, irresistible laugh and smile, and both are here in abundance.

Like most, I only know the legend at the cost of knowing little of the woman, and I suspect My Week With Marilyn stays firmly in the former territory. This isn’t so much a biopic as a dreamy snapshot of an enigma, helped by the fact our perspective is that of a posh-boy intern called Colin who can’t quite believe his luck. There’s a dash of truth here insofar as a young boy did indeed make it onto the set for the filming of Marilyn’s only British film, his father happening to be friends with Sir Laurence Olivier who directs and costars in the film in question. And the film is, roughly, based on his diaries. You can’t help but feel, however, that for the sake of the pure joy of the moments it provides, there will have been an exaggeration of the extent Colin got to know her. Or, if it isn’t the filmmakers doing the truth-inflation, it will surely be the boy himself who makes up the nude swimming scene in a sun-kissed lake.

The queerness of their friendship is the reason for reservations about the film as a whole here. It starts off appearing as a clear source of humour that won’t go too far. The focus seems to be Olivier’s inability to grasp the fragile Marilyn’s insistence on using Method acting to take time to ‘feel’ her character, and the tension on set that results. But before long this becomes the backdrop, and we go from laughing at casual, flirtatious conversations between the world’s greatest sex symbol and a boy, to surprise that she is suddenly confessing all to him and demanding comfort-spooning in her bedroom. It is here that we start to doubt the film’s opening claim to be a true story. Most of its key scenes are all too conveniently between two people in private.

But perhaps the costs of this approach – namely, story-skepticism and boring-boy comments on the events unfolding around him – are made worthwhile by what they allow. Without it, maintaining the mystery surrounding Marilyn would have been harder to justify, and with the loss of that take on her we would also miss out on some delightful scenes we are willing to suspend our doubts about. If Williams wins Best Actress, it won’t be for any stand-out climactic moment in which she gets to pour her heart out. It’ll be for a sustained, quiet performance in which she has mastered all the mannerisms and perfected the posture, before capturing the cultural image of a sensitive, vulnerable, but ultimately playful soul.

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