To the extent that Michelle Williams’ multilayered interpretation of Marilyn Monroe serves as its raison d’etre, “My Week With Marilyn” succeeds stunningly. Otherwise, the film flits uneasily between arch drawing-room comedy and foreshadowed tragedy as perceived by infatuated young Brit Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), recounting his personal experiences with the fragile screen icon during the shooting of 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Taking no chances, unlike its star, “Marilyn” complacently coasts on Williams’ bravura perf amid mostly stodgy showbiz re-creations, but awards buzz and ever-reliable Anglophilia could spell solid B.O. returns for the Weinstein Co.
The true story itself feels ripped from film fan magazines of the period, as scribe Adrian Hodges and helmer Simon Curtis filter the proceedings through their protagonist/narrator, the youngest in an upper-class family of intellectuals. Colin heads off to London to work in a movie industry pooh-poohed by his elders, landing a job as third assistant director on “The Prince and the Showgirl,” starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), also helming the pic.
It’s through Clark’s eyes that Monroe is introduced as she arrives in London for the first time, accompanied by new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). She proceeds to seduce and captivate the press, although no amount of charm works on Olivier, whose explosive ego seems ill suited to the job of placating director. Olivier’s literal-minded belief in letter-perfect discipline conflicts with Monroe’s more coddled Method acting, the professional insecurities of both stars — one rising, one falling — exacerbating the problem.
Feeling dissed, abandoned and misunderstood in a strange land (her husband having returned to New York), Monroe latches on to Colin as her champion and confidant (“Why is Sir Larry so mean to me?”), someone who can support her against the old guard. The two share a sexually charged but platonic intimacy, Colin apparently being the latest in a long line of such lads.
Hodges’ script deliberately contrasts the hidebound aristocracy of the British stage with the natural, untutored spontaneity of Hollywood; at one point, Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) reminds Branagh’s Olivier that, unlike them, Monroe knows how to act for the camera. Ironically, then, “Marilyn” is all too stagily directed by theater- and TV-trained Curtis, lining up his characters with no attention to spatial logic or rhythmic flow. Every moment, period detail, antique roadster or TWA passenger plane seems carefully placed for superficial authenticity; although this approach sometimes plays effectively against Williams’ continually morphing performance, it leaves the film’s non-Monroe sections mired in artifice.
Thesping is surprisingly hit-or-miss, given the roster of English luminaries; Branagh’s exclusive use of theatrical rhetoric works better in comedic scenes than in the film’s occasional attempts at emotional depth. Dench’s performance is rousing but familiar; Redmayne brings a bright-eyed, puppy-dog eagerness to his role; and standout Toby Jones strikes a rare eclectic note as a loudmouth American press agent.
But the film belongs to Williams, whose tour-de-force turn conflates three Marilyns: the lost, damaged little girl who seeks to escape others’ expectations and return to simpler childhood days; the sexy superstar who impishly poses with a wink in complicity with her public; and the actress playing a pre-scripted part. The genius of the performance lies in the way Williams stresses the interconnectedness of these personalities: The neediness fuels the impudence, the vulnerability turns sexually provocative, and the little girl and sexpot together drive the screen role.
Thesp even ventures into saucy singing and dancing a la Marilyn in the pic’s opening and closing numbers.