by Genevieve Yue
My Week with Marilyn
Dir. Simon Curtis, U.K., The Weinstein Company
As Andy Warhol well understood, Marilyn Monroe was a particularly modern type of celebrity, better known as an image than any character she played. His screenprinted portraits of her traded on her iconic power, demonstrating in popular culture as well as in silkscreen ink, that where it concerned Marilyn there was no such thing as over-saturation. Monroe’s entire persona, of course, was already a media creation, a role carefully crafted with platinum blonde curls, an alliterative stage name, a wink, and a smile. Since her death in 1962, there has been no shortage of actresses, Vegas imitators, and drag queens that have assumed the part, all to varying degrees of camp, yet beyond any historical interest a filmmaker would have in examining the sensationalist details of her life, her story also occasions a look into the nature of contemporary image-making itself.
Unfortunately Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn, the latest film to tackle the subject, sticks mostly to biopic terrain, though initially, at least, it addresses the disjunction between Monroe’s public face and her stormy private life. Based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, then a third assistant director on the 1956 production of The Prince and the Showgirl, the film takes Colin’s perspective in watching Monroe (Michelle Williams) on the film-within-the-film’s London set, where Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), casting himself opposite Monroe in his first directorial outing, hopes to revitalize his flagging career. Meanwhile Monroe, accompanied by new husband Arthur Miller (Victor McGuire) and method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), seeks the theatrical prestige of this Sir and Dame–studded production, playing a role originally made famous onstage by Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). At the press conference following her arrival, however, the group of salivating reporters makes clear they have no interest in Marilyn’s bid to become a serious actress, asking only tabloid-worthy questions about what she wears or doesn’t wear between the sheets.
Monroe bats away the questions with poise and surprising wit, her cadence deliberate and even-paced, though cutaways showing her hand gripping Miller’s suggest the psychological anguish this and other public appearances was causing her. During this scene, a shot of what seems to be documentary footage of Monroe leaning in to kiss Miller’s cheek is cut in, a grainy, black-and-white intrusion into the film’s deep, jewel-toned color scheme (all the better to set off Marilyn’s peroxide locks). The snippet, whether real or reconstructed, invites a comparison between this film and the media legacy Marilyn left behind, but Curtis makes no further references of this sort. He chooses instead to construct a straightforward drama that, through the eyes of young, star-struck Colin (Eddie Redmayne), can only see Marilyn as that perpetually inscrutable object of desire.
The results are predictably dull, and My Week with Marilyn seems imbued with the same stuffy pomp that plagued Olivier and his crew. Outside of Williams, the rest of the venerable cast is squandered, effectively reduced to expensive, one-dimensional set pieces. From Branagh’s hammy Olivier idly quoting Prospero to Wanamaker’s creepy, Mrs. Danvers–esque take on Strasberg, every real-life figure seems, ironically, cartoonish. Judi Dench makes the most of her alter-Dame, Sybil Thorndike, but her few, mostly expository lines are little more than lofty-sounding catchphrases. In the brief instance where labor politics erupt into a squabble on set, another potentially compelling, self-reflexive angle the film could have examined, she breaks up the fight by declaring, “We were all Bolsheviks then!” As if the pronouncement of solidarity, long-settled, was something that only needed reminding, everyone promptly goes back to work. For Thorndike, Marilyn’s imminent arrival is all the more cause for exclamation points. “Such a lark!” the wizened woman exclaims, clasping her hands together. “I long to see her.”
Why Dame Sybil or anyone else, for that matter, should care to see Marilyn is never adequately explained. Part of the problem is that the film never settles on which Marilyn it wants to address, and the narrative alternates awkwardly between Colin’s coming-of-age crush and Monroe herself, a woman who depends on yet suffers through the image the world has shaped of her. Worse, it attempts to merge the two paths, treating the glimpses of Monroe’s private despair as an opportunity for Colin to slip in and try to save her, with him, in one instance, literally climbing through the window to chastely snuggle with the drugged diva. When, after their weeklong getaway, he tries to persuade Monroe to give up her career and run off with him, she lets him down by professing her devotion to Miller. Colin, in return, childishly hurts her the only way he knows how: he calls her a goddess, and in doing so places her back on her celebrity pedestal, divesting her of the vulnerability she had revealed to him.
The freckled Redmayne plays his role with an appropriately boyish combination of fantasy and arrogance, as Colin genuinely believes that of all the people on set, the coquettish actress would fall in love with him. As Monroe, however, Williams suggests a more complicated picture: a woman as irresistibly and tragically drawn to male attention as she is capable of attracting it. Williams performs as if in an entirely different, not to mention better, film, moving at a languid pace whether wrapping herself in a towel or turning to Colin with a slow, sleepy smile. Though she often says “Gee!,” she never seems surprised, and it’s to Williams’s credit that her airiness belies a sense of distant sadness that no one seems to notice, save, perhaps, Olivier. Despite his frustration with her fragility on set, the aging director sees a different Marilyn in the rushes: fresh, radiant, and everything he is not. “All I see reflected in that magnificent face,” he moans, “is my own inadequacy.”
Rather than recount Colin’s fantasy date with Marilyn, it might have made for a more worthwhile film to examine the circumstances surrounding the two memoirs that came out of his experience; the first, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, described the transatlantic culture clash and troubled production of the film, and the second, My Week with Marilyn, published years later, detailed the abbreviated romance between Clark and Monroe. Why did Clark hide the story? And why, finally, did he publish it at all? Curtis, unfortunately, doesn’t give us any clues as to Clark’s motives, or anything that run deeper than schoolboy wish fulfillment. Williams, however, gives us a Marilyn who understands her own image better than anyone. Out on an impromptu shopping excursion, and shortly before she is mobbed on a quiet London street, Colin suggests to her that she should see the sights. She spots the crowd before he does. “I am the sights,” she says, her voice bright. There’s not a hint of weariness in it.