I hate biopics. The form simply doesn't work; while there will always be a handful of exceptions, the episodic format of the biopic removes drama and flow from a cinematic narrative, leaving instead a pageant of lifetime highlights. I much prefer when a movie tackles a specific period in someone's life, offering the opportunity for not just a complete and satisfying narrative but also the ability - in the hands of a smart writer - to view an entire life through this one facet.
My Week With Marilyn is one of those movies. It's largely successful - funny, interesting, a joy for film nerds (if you don't get excited seeing Jack Cardiff show up in the movie, hand in your movie nerd badge now) - but it has one particular ingredient that brings the film from passable fluff to something I highly recommend: Michelle Williams' performance as Marilyn Monroe.
This true story is set during the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl, when Sir Laurence Olivier brought Monroe to London to make a movie. For Monroe this was a chance to try and be a great actress, for Olivier her youth and sexuality offered him a chance to relaunch himself. It was a terrible collaboration and the two were like oil and water.
Colin Clark is an upper class English twit who dreams of working in the movies; using a family connection to Vivien Leigh, Olivier's wife, Colin gets himself a job as third assistant director on the film - essentially a gussied up gofer. But once the troubled, confused (and confusing) Monroe meets him there is a connection; he becomes her only friend and confidante on the set and he falls in love with her.
There's a caste system in the movie business as powerful as India's; every time I meet an actor or a director I am innately aware of the chasm between us, even if we're friendly. My Week With Marilyn really captures the feeling of that chasm, as well as the weird, almost inhuman way a movie star can fill a room with presence. It is easy to feel like a different (lesser) species when meeting a real movie star, and I rarely see that reflected in movies, but My Week With Marilyn gets it perfectly right.
That feeling wouldn't work without Williams. While I've always thought she was a talented actress, I never thought of Williams as a MOVIE STAR, but she pumps out the charisma here like a wind turbine in a hurricane. She's all presence, just like the real Monroe. Williams isn't quite doing one of those annoying imitation performances, which comes from the fact that she's playing Marilyn as an incredibly psychologically complex character.
Who is Marilyn Monroe? Was there anything behind that front? Was Norma Jean still in there? Was she a little girl lost, or was she cannily aware of the way she impacted those around her, and used it to her advantage? These are the questions that Williams explores in her wonderful, awards-worthy performance. When Marilyn is overwhelmed and terrified, Williams is totally convincing. When Marilyn is manipulating men with a pout or a faux-dumb comment she's utterly convincing as well. Her Marilyn is both a womanchild AND a master string-puller, and it's perhaps this dichotomy that fueled our love for her.
It certainly fuels the greatness of the performance. Williams outshines everything else in this perfectly serviceable film (it's the kind of movie where the main character has an inane voice over at the beginning and the end, and it finishes up with text explaining to us what happened to these people next - absolutely standard for the genre). Director Simon Curtis more or less places the camera in the right spots, occasionally even getting a great shot, but the film rarely wows visually.
The other performances are good; Kenneth Branagh blusters as an often outraged, Shakespeare-quoting Olivier, and Eddie Redmayne is utterly inoffensive as Colin, who has the bad luck of being the least interesting character in his own story. Emma Watson does the plain-beautiful thing as a dresser who fancies Colin, and Julia Ormond is very nice in a few scenes as Vivien Leigh. The other terrific performance in the movie is Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, who is just about the ultimate loving grandmother.
As a Planet of the Apes fan I was excited to see Arthur Jacobs (played by Toby Jones) show up - producer of the Apes movies he was also Marilyn's press agent. Dougray Scott almost gets into the swing of being Arthur Miller (his accent is sometimes laughably strong), and Zoe Wanamaker is fun as Paula Strasberg, playing the acting coach as a hyper Jewish mom. Again, as a film lover seeing these behind the scenes people coming to life is simply a joy.
But all of it is eclipsed by Williams. She's the reason to see the movie; sexy and damaged, knowing and frightened, manipulative and helpless, she brings to life the engrossing schizophrenia of Marilyn Monroe's persona. She's luminous and entrancing, and she's infuriating in equal measure. Williams finds the honesty inside the character, and that means she's often playing Norma Jean playing Marilyn.
The rest of the film is watchable, and often enjoyable, but My Week With Marilyn exists only so that we can be wowed by Michelle Williams. Go be wowed.