At this point, I’m amazed by Michelle Williams so regularly that I’m used to it.
After all, she’s been crushing it in film after film. “Blue Valentine.” “Wendy and Lucy.” “Meek’s Cutoff.” “Take This Waltz.” She has slowly but surely asserted herself as one of the most impressive young actors working, able to tap into a wellspring of pain that makes her work almost impossible to take at times while being hard to turn off. I love it when an actor starts to really play these raw nerve types of roles, and if it is her real-life personal pain that drives her, then I am truly sorry on her behalf, but I am thankful we at least have the work to enjoy.
Playing Marilyn Monroe seems like the sort of thing that is almost too big a challenge, and one of the reasons I’ve never been a huge fan of biopics in general. I think they often try to distill an entire life into two hours and often fail miserably at the task. Human lives are complicated, and any person over the course of a life lived richly will probably be several different distinct people over the course of many decades. We change. We evolve. We are rarely just one thing, but biopics are by their very nature reductive, designed to sum someone up with a few signature moments or ideas. I hope I’m not defined that easily, and I don’t believe most people are.
It’s often a good idea to just focus on a moment or a particular act in someone’s life, and by going small-scale, it often allows you to get a better look at who they were at that time. That kind of intimate portraiture almost always works better, and that’s the case with “My Week With Marilyn,” a new film by Simon Curtis with a script by Adrian Hodges that takes its inspiration from a memoir by Colin Clark. The film is not, strictly speaking, about Marilyn Monroe, but is instead about a storm that blows through the life of young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he manages to work his way into his first job in the film industry, a storm that just happens to be named Marilyn Monroe.
What makes the performance by Williams so special is that she’s really done her homework here and while I don’t think she looks a thing like Monroe, she understands her in a way that transcends physical appearance. Like many film fans, I went through a Monroe phase, and I have a real fondness for her as a comic actor first, but also as an icon who was very aware of how the camera responded to her. She was not the most beautiful woman of her age, but she was the most self-aware, and she built a larger-than-life character that I still think is one of the most canny of the media age. Williams is able to show us, carefully, without spelling it out, all of the different faces that Marilyn would wear in the course of a day, and she also taps into that hunger for love that made Marilyn such a tragic, painful figure.
There’s a remarkable moment in the film where she’s touring Windsor Palace, and as she comes down a flight of steps, the household staff has gathered to get a look at her and they start to applaud. She immediately snaps into performance mode, and we see one Marilyn give way to another. In that one moment, without spelling things out, we see the incredible control that Marilyn had over her image, as well as the toll it took on her to give so much to other people.
The film also digs into the insecurity that drove her, and the people that fed off of her, and the industry around her, and Colin becomes this witness of this incredible amount of energy that is spent by a small army in order to sustain the illusion that Marilyn Monroe is a real person. Obviously, there’s a real person somewhere in the middle of this maelstrom, but even she seems to have some trouble sorting out which one is which, and the pills and the acting coaches and the agents and the producers didn’t help, as all of them seemed to have their own agenda, their own desire that is being played out through the filter of Marilyn. We see two very strong personalities, Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) as they grapple with what they expected from Marilyn and the reality that they’ve had to confront. For Olivier, he thought that he’d cast this Hollywood actress in his movie, and she’d be overwhelmed by him and his legend and she’d fall to her knees and worship him in the currency that starlets have always used to repay powerful men in this business, and in the exchange, he’d get some bit of her glamor and her youth that would transfer over to him, while Miller wanted to take this unapproachable icon and dirty her up, bring her down to some human scale, and take her mask away with his words and his insight and his wisdom. What both men learn, and what it seemed like everyone learned when they worked with her, was that the character Marilyn created was so big that it eclipsed anyone who got close, and there was no way to bend her fame to any purpose other than itself. In any room, Marilyn was the one who had all the gravity, the one that all others had to defer to, and for men used to being the alpha, it was almost impossible to take.
I have no idea how much of Clark’s book is true, and it sort of doesn’t matter. Any “truth” it contains would be from his point of view, and he was so blown away by the idea that he was working on a real movie that it’s all got to be seen as the memories of someone experiencing that first flush of love. At one point, Olivier refers to Clark’s adventure as “running away to join the circus,” and more than anything, that’s what the film gets right. The idea that the closer you get to the glamor, the more you see past it, and at some point, it comes full circle and you realize that the reality is even more romantic. He goes from loving the person he sees on a screen to loving the lost little girl he thinks lies behind that icon to loving the thing that she creates in her best moments, that person who only lives onscreen. And maybe that’s all Marilyn really is in the end, a collection of perfect takes that stand apart from messy reality. It’s obvious that everyone forgives her faults and indulges her weaknesses because they all want to see those perfect magic moments, no matter what it takes to get there.
Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, Emma Watson as a costume girl, Toby Jones as Arthur Jacobs, Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Dominic Cooper all do excellent work, and the film avoids all of the pitfalls of the biopic, rarely stopping to ladle on the exposition. It assumes you have some knowledge of the people being portrayed, and it hits the ground running. By keeping everything centered around Colin’s point-of-view, the film isn’t burdened with the need to cover every base. Instead, it’s told with economy and wit, and offers just enough genuine insight that I think it does real justice to one of the most complicated legacies in Hollywood history. If this were just a showcase for Williams to play dress up as one of the most discussed movie stars in history, it would be impressive because of her technical skill, but it reaches deeper, and it works better than that. it’s a little episodic, and that’s a problem with this type of material in almost every case, but the film avoids many of the most difficult narrative traps for true stories.
“My Week With Marilyn” may well leave younger viewers with their own desire to run away and join the circus, or at the very least, an urge to dig into the filmography left behind by Monroe. I encourage both urges heartily.
“My Week With Marilyn” is open today.