When you’re dealing with a biographical film, casting is paramount. You have to get the right actor to recreate the life of your subject, and the more titanic and indelible your subject is, the harder it is to find the right actor.
My Week with Marilyn is a film about two people who were more than titans. Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier were, and are, icons, gods, irreplaceable screen idols. So, even with all the film’s other merits considered, the biggest question will always be whether stars Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh can pull off the very tall order of bringing these two legends back to life.
They do more than that. The whole film is a truly charming piece of cinema, but the greatest achievement of My Week with Marilyn is the ability of its stars to infuse their characters – so often overblown in the public imagination – with an often startling sense of humanity.
In the late 1950s a young man named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) manages to snag a job as third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, the new film by Sir Laurence Olivier (Branagh) that will star worldwide sex symbol Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).
Colin has a glorious time on set, schmoozing with Marilyn’s publicist (Toby Jones) and legendary English actress Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) and even managing to score a date with the cute wardrobe girl (Emma Watson). Then Marilyn herself arrives, and the whole production is transfixed by her beauty and often troubling mystery. Except Olivier, whose driven mad by her tardiness, her nervous stumbling through scenes and her constant reliance on a method acting coach from New York (Zoe Wanamaker).
Distant from her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and frustrated by her own performance, Marilyn begins to spiral into personal crisis. Colin, completely under her spell, begins to see that even her own handlers are exacerbating the problem, and attempts to be a soothing influence on the most famous woman in the world. Over the week that follows, the pair forms an unlikely bond that’s at least partly romantic, and Colin lives a dream that he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
Colin Clark is a real person, and the film is based on his own memoirs about his time on the Prince and the Showgirl set. The first thing you notice about the film’s tone is how luminous with admiration it is for the people who inhabit this world. We’re seeing this all through Colin’s eyes, a young man enthralled by the magic of the movies and the unfathomable beauty of the unattainable woman he’s just met. Director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges seem to understand this right from the beginning, and they succeed in smearing the whole film over with a kind of warmth, even in the darker moments. It’s well-shot, well-scripted and well-paced throughout, but the best thing both of them did was simply give quality material to their cast and get out of the way.
Though Marilyn’s name is in the title, Branagh owns the first half of this film just as Laurence Olivier must have owned nearly every room he walked into for most of his life. Not only does he nail the voice (which, as Olivier fans know, is quite distinctive), but he nails the aura. He booms with the kind of ego Olivier was famous for, and steals scenes right out from under everyone else in the film, including Williams. Speaking of Williams, she shines as Monroe. She deserves every accolade she got for the role. The sexiness, the vulnerability, the surprising wisdom and reckless desperation to feel something genuine amid all the Hollywood fakery, it’s all there. She too has an aura about her. It’s more than the sex symbol aura that haunted Monroe all her life, though. It’s the aura of a vivid, shimmering presence. As Monroe was, so too is Williams. The rest of the cast, headed by Redmayne, never struggles to keep up, and in many ways the film often becomes an ensemble piece in which every actor is pulling his or her weight with poise and ease.
My Week with Marilyn doesn’t really shed light on anything we didn’t already know about the characters who inhabit it. It’s not a profound masterpiece pulsing with profound new insight into these iconic people. But it is a remarkably genuine, easy to love film, well-made by a group of very talented people.
My Week with Marilyn is available everywhere on Blu-Ray and DVD.