It’s hard now to conceive of just how huge a star Marilyn Monroe was at the peak of her fame in the mid-1950s. Take Lady Gaga, multiply her by Brangelina at their most visible – and then take it to the 10th power.
You get a hint of that in Simon Curtis’ witty, insightful “My Week with Marilyn,” based on a memoir by Colin Clark (played in this film by Eddie Redmayne). Clark, the son of Sir Kenneth Clark (“Civilization”), was a recent college graduate in 1956. He was also dying to break into the movie business, so he used his family connections to land himself a job as an assistant to Sir Laurence Olivier, who was about to direct the film “The Prince and the Showgirl.”
Olivier obviously was the prince, having played the same role in the script’s West End run as a Terence Rattigan play, “The Sleeping Prince.” But he replaced his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the showgirl role with the magical Marilyn, who was also a first-time producer on the film, through her new production company. Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh; Marilyn is embodied by Michelle Williams. It’s a perfect match-up on both sides.
The story, such as it is, focuses on the clash of approaches between Olivier and Monroe, deep in the throes of her involvement with the Actors Studio and Method acting. Aside from her perpetual lateness – and her reliance on sleeping pills – Monroe is almost terminally insecure. She’s unconvinced of her own talent, intimidated by working with Olivier and hurt that he sees her as a fluff-brained sexpot who is only as deep as her image.
So she is accompanied by Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), wife of Lee Strasberg, the Actors Studio chief and guru. While Olivier just wants Monroe to hit her mark, wiggle her ass and say her line, Strasberg is filling her head with notions of motivation and character back-story, complicating what Olivier sees as a simple comedy role.
Monroe’s only other source of security turns out to be Clark, who is detailed by Olivier to keep an eye on her. Because he is making no demands on her, Clark becomes the shoulder she can lean on and the ear to listen – really listen – to what she’s feeling (and then to offer advice that comes with no agenda attached).
At one point, she wants to simply slip the bonds of the film for a few days. So Colin takes her away, driving around the countryside seeing the sights without the publicity machinery or studio apparatus to set her schedule or the press to track her movements. It is a chaste getaway yet an intimate one, with the lonely actress (who has brought her new husband, Arthur Miller, with her to England) warming to the young assistant’s intelligent, undemanding presence.
And that’s the film. Curtis gives us delicious backstage sequences, many involving the delightful Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, another star of the film, who befriended Marilyn and scolded Olivier for the way he treated her. There’s also Dominic Cooper, short-tempered and peppery as Milton Greene, the fashion photographer who became Monroe’s partner in the production company.
Redmayne is a likable, intelligent presence as the young man given an extraordinary close-up view of movie royalty. But this film belongs to Williams, who finds multiple layers as Marilyn, and Branagh, wonderfully brusque and hilariously self-pitying as the aging Olivier.
Williams, it seems, can do almost anything. She is a protean actor of amazing range; here, she finds a way to embody perhaps the most famous movie star of all time, without seeming to do an impression or an impersonation. She simply is this shimmering presence who is smarter than she lets on and both tougher and more vulnerable than you would expect. Monroe had the ability to render whole rooms of people – or theaters – speechless; Williams gives us a glimpse of why that was.
“My Week with Marilyn” is deft and light, without losing the emotional core of Monroe’s struggle. If Adrian Hodges’ script includes a clichéd backstage romance between Clark and a wardrobe assistant played by Emma Watson of the “Harry Potter” series, it doesn’t detract from what is an entertaining and enjoyable slice of a bygone era.