REVIEW: Michelle Williams Achieves Near-Perfection in Less-Than-Perfect My Week with Marilyn

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There are some movies that have little or nothing to recommend them, except as a frame for a performance. My Week with Marilyn is that kind of movie. Based on writer and documentary filmmaker Colin Clark's memoir of the time he spent with Marilyn Monroe while working as an assistant to Laurence Olivier on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, My Week with Marilyn manages to be both slender and overworked, a picture that states over and over again, in the baldest terms, how emotionally fragile Monroe was. We know, we know already. My Week with Marilyn has a TV-biopic sheen, and you could dismiss it easily -- except for the fact that Michelle Williams, as Marilyn, both anchors the movie and upends it. Miss it and you'll miss one of the finest performances of this year.

Eddie Redmayne plays young Colin, a tweedy aristocrat who distresses his family by announcing that he wants to work in cinema. Through perseverance, he actually manages to land a job: Olivier (played, superbly, by Kenneth Branagh -- he has always been Laurence Olivier in his own mind, anyway) hires Colin as a go-fer on the movie he's preparing, which will star a luscious actress who has been imported from the United States just for this purpose, her brand-new, gassy-looking, hard-on of a husband in tow. (That husband would be playwright Arthur Miller, and he's played by a perceptively grumpy Dougray Scott.) As they wait for her arrival, Marilyn's fellow actors buzz with curiosity and anticipation. It's not just that they know who she is; it's as if some cloud of heavenly perfume had already wafted in to announce her arrival in advance. "Such a lark!" exclaims Judi Dench's Dame Sybil Thorndike (who comes off, by the way, as one hell of a class act). "I long to see her!"

That longing is fulfilled when Williams' Marilyn steps onto the scene: There's something both delicate and robust about her, and she's as radiant as the halo around a comet. One thing My Week with Marilyn does get right is that women were as enchanted by her as the men were, if perhaps in a different way. They may have been jealous of her -- how could they not be? But Williams captures that effervescent something that Marilyn had, and in the movie's vision, even Olivier's insecure wife, Vivien Leigh (played by an altogether too-sharp Julia Ormond), can't slip out of her effortless spell.

My Week with Marilyn was directed by Simon Curtis, whose credits include a number of British made-for-TV movies and miniseries, among them the 1999 David Copperfield. It's efficient and pleasant enough, but it's also frustratingly superficial even as it tries to convey depth. Redmayne makes a believable, sympathetic innocent -- you can see how Marilyn, far from home and recognizing she's just married a man who looks down upon her, would be drawn to him as a playmate and companion and maybe, even, something more. When she and the guardian Olivier has hired to keep an eye on her (played by Philip Jackson) "kidnap" Colin for a day in the country, away from the cares and pressures of the movie set -- the stress of which Monroe found nearly unbearable -- she takes exquisite delight in kicking off her shoes and picking her way, daintily but eagerly, across the grass. When she and Colin come to a pond, she strips down for a swim and urges her shy, would-be paramour to do the same. As Williams plays Marilyn, there's no shame or guile or prudishness to her. She's as wild and free as a dove.

But she's also unreliable, deeply insecure, and controlled unduly by her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (a foreboding Zoë Wanamaker). If Williams somehow channels and radiates that trademark Marilyn glow, she is also superb at playing the not-so-light, not-so-free Marilyn, and a scene in which she locks herself in her bedroom, woozy from sleeping pills, presages some of the horrors to come (horrors that My Week with Marilyn doesn't, thankfully, have to portray).

Williams has several lines of dialogue that explain Marilyn's persistent romantic disappointments: All the men who were attracted to her desired the dream girl, only to be disappointed when they realized they were stuck with a mere woman. But Williams doesn't even need that dialogue to convey Marilyn's spun-glass fragility. Good hair and makeup, as well as smart costuming, account partly for the magic of Williams' transformation here. Yet this performance transcends mere mimicry. In the movie's most enchanting sequence, Marilyn finally finds her footing in the midst of Olivier's intimidating style of direction: As the cameras roll, her Prince and the Showgirl character executes a dance that's little more than a series of hops and jumps, but she's so graceful, free and light, they seem like the most perfect choreography in the world. In that moment, this Marilyn is everything: Vulnerable and triumphant, tentative and persistent. That Williams can capture all of that, with a wink and a smile and a little laugh, is the chief marvel of this otherwise somewhat lusterless movie. Her Marilyn needs as much love as we can give her. But Williams also captures the sorry truth that it could never, ever be enough.

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  • Charles says:

    "Michelle Williams, as Marilyn, both anchors the movie and upends it."
    That pretty much says it all. It's my favorite performance so far this year. And 'm pretty sure I'll be cheering Williams on against Meryl Streep at the Oscars.