Normally, when a film about a historical figure finds its way into “awards watch” season, you expect a certain level of intrigue from its content. My Week With Marilyn is no different. Marilyn Monroe is a staple of American culture. We all know her face, her voice, her classic lines, her wardrobe “malfunctions,” her tumultuous relationship history, her power over men and of course, that ugly little truth we like to brush under the carpet: the pill addiction that eventually cost her her life. This film purports to give us a look at the “real” Marilyn – the one the millions of representations of her haven’t already shown us. The problem is that by the time the film attempts to explore the darker corners of Monroe’s (Michelle Williams) existence, we, like our protagonist Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), are already under her spell. The result is an inconclusive but splendid journey with a very complicated and often misunderstood woman.
We meet plucky young Colin as he embarks on his first foray into feature films. It’s his dream and thanks to a connection to Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), he’s got a shot at working on a film. But it’s not just any movie; it’s The Prince and Showgirl, a marriage of American and English sensibilities starring Olivier and Monroe. When Colin arrives, he’s just a third assistant director to Olivier – essentially a go-fer – and can do little but admire Marilyn without hope. He takes up with a wardrobe girl named Lucy (Emma Watson), and goes about his duties. Of course things don’t stay this simple. His newness lends itself to a bit more flexibility, so when Olivier’s rigid practices clash with Marilyn’s laissez-faire style and the production begins to slow to a glacial pace, Colin is a natural fit to become Marilyn’s willing ally. Their friendship grows as Olivier’s temper comes to a boiling point, and the result makes Marilyn a film tinged with a choice number of harsh realities – but as soon as they rear their ugly heads, Monroe’s ever-present spell casts itself over them.
Of course, this isn’t so much a criticism of the film as it is criticism of the weight given to the content. My Week With Marilyn is beautifully shot, allowing the nostalgic air of London and Monroe in the 50s to take the lead with a few contemporary flairs to help keep us along for the ride. Every detail is impeccable, from the music to the settings, to the dialog. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Redmayne displays all the youth and earnest vigor demanded by his young character. Though her character teeters between a layered enigma and the girl the entire world knows, Williams handles each angle as easily as Marilyn handles the men around her. Supporting cast members Julia Ormond (as Vivien Leigh), Judi Dench (as Dame Sybil Thorndike) and Branagh put their wealth of experience to tremendous use. Lesser known actors like Dougray Scott and Dominic Cooper take on American accents with minimal issues and handle their supporting characters with ease – and Watson delivers her usual (but welcome) lovely, precocious act.
There’s really nothing wrong with My Week With Marilyn. It’s lovely. It’s smart. It’s extremely well-crafted. It’s a good film. But it does little to excite a reaction beyond that. And when you’re dealing with someone we know as well as most of the world knows Marilyn, I doubt I’m the only one who expect a little more…va va voom.