In the weekly grind of seeing, suffering through, and writing about what passes for movies today, perfection is a word I rarely have the occasion to use. A warm, wonderful and enchanting work of artistry such as My Week With Marilyn is the exception to that problem. What an extraordinary thrill to leave a movie exhilarated instead of drained, sated instead of empty, rejuvenated instead of depressed. It’s a magical experience.
This is the moving, cinematically inspired true story of a young man named Colin Clark who, in 1956, went to London to apply for a job as a production assistant on the widely publicized, highly anticipated movie version of Terence Rattigan’s celebrated play The Sleeping Prince, to be called The Prince and the Showgirl, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier and co-starring the most famous and desirable woman in the world, the one and only Marilyn Monroe. Determined and persistent, Colin wouldn’t take no for an answer, and eventually graduated to an exalted go-for position as third assistant director, which included serving tea, soothing jangled nerves, acting as a bodyguard to the Hollywood goddess on her first visit to England, and generally playing the role of a peacekeeper that would tax the combined talents of the United Nations General Assembly. It was a dream come true for a confused, starry-eyed, 23-year-old underachiever, newly graduated from Oxford, whose wealthy, prominent parents considered his job on a soundstage at Pinewood nothing more than slumming. But he got a keyhole closeup of filmmaking at its most glamorous and stressful, and as the long and strenuous film dragged on, threatening to never end, he took copious notes and logged every detail in his diaries, which were finally published in the form of a 1995 memoir called The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me and expanded into a second book called My Week With Marilyn. Totally mesmerizing. This film might not appeal to anyone who has never heard of The Prince and the Showgirl or to those too young to understand the supercolossal charisma and appeal of the tragic Marilyn herself, but for legions of movie buffs like me who grew up on this stuff, My Week With Marilyn opens up a world of wide-eyed wonder while it sweeps away the glitter and the fairy dust to reveal the pain, frustration and sweat behind the scenes. By the time it ends, you feel like you were there, and thanks to the incandescent performance by Michelle Williams as Marilyn, I promise you’ll get to know the conflicted woman behind the diamonds and the sunglasses and the glossy 8×10 fan magazine photos a little bit better than you ever will from the continuing parade of biographies that keep writers fascinated by a legend imitated by many Hollywood wanna-bes through the years but equaled by none.
Eddie Redmayne, the versatile, charismatic and highly praised actor who won a Tony award for the excellent play Red, is a sweet and sexy combination of open-hearted youth and maturing hormones as a boy taking his first tenuous steps into manhood. Some members of the British press have done their best to contest the accuracy of Mr. Clark’s books, labeling him a parasite and a phony, accusing him of embellishing the facts, and claiming that as a third assistant to director-star Laurence Olivier on The Prince and the Showgirl he never got any closer to Marilyn than fetching coffee. Who cares? His memories, no matter how hyperbolic, make for first-rate filmmaking and the script by Adrian Hodges distills every poignant, startling, rapturous and heart-breaking highlight of importance from his two best-selling autobiographical memoirs. According to him, Marilyn took a fancy to a sympathetic boy with no agenda who adored her unconditionally, mainly because he was protective, unselfish and a reminder of her own lost innocence. Also, she was an outsider in a strange country who needed a friend. At first, it was difficult to gain her trust. One by one, her entourage arrives—including photographer and former lover Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), third husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and domineering Actors Studio coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), a gargoyle who feeds on the star’s insurmountable insecurities and holds up the production on a daily basis, exerting control in all the wrong places, butting heads with everyone on the production while she gives Marilyn line readings. Kenneth Branagh is the distinguished Laurence Olivier, whose patience soon plummets into rage and near-madness (“Christ, what have I got myself into?”) as Marilyn keeps everyone waiting for hours on end, including one of England’s most revered character actresses, Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench in an imperial but luminous performance). Among the supporting players, Harry Potter’s Emma Watson is a wardrobe assistant with her own crush on Colin but no competition for Miss Monroe; Julia Ormond is a beautifully realized Vivien Leigh, who excelled in Marilyn’s role onstage but was too old for the screen; and Toby Jones (the one who should have won an Oscar for playing Truman Capote in Infamous, the second and better of the two films about the writing of In Cold Blood, instead of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is Marilyn’s press agent, Arthur Jacobs. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
My Week With Marilyn is pure perfection, all right, and even more. Simon Curtis, a seasoned London stage director making his feature-film debut, does a masterful job of handling the most minute moments with delicacy and candor. Like eyes growing accustomed to the dark, it takes a while to adjust to Ms. Williams. I’ve seen drag queens who look more like the real Marilyn. Her eyes are too big, the contours of her face lack the jaw line that stopped traffic, and where are the splendiferous curves when she shakes her booty singing “Heat Wave” and “That Old Black Magic” in film clips Colin watches hypnotized, in the darkness of a movie theater? Ms. Williams does her own singing and dancing and she’s letter perfect. Who knew? And then everything about the legendary sex goddess comes alive too—the breathless voice, the undulating poitrine, the tousled mop of bottle-blonde hair, the insecure body language that translated into control and power—as Ms. Williams grows into the role like new skin. The illusion grows on you, like a lichen. Scene by scene, she melts into the picture. By the end, she is no longer an imposter; she’s the real deal, inhabiting Marilyn’s body, mind, heart and soul.
As production on the ill-fated Prince and the Showgirl dragged on, the frightened American star grew more dependent on the English boy’s sweetness and sympathetic compassion (Mr. Redmayne’s charm and awkward sex appeal don’t hurt either). After she discovers Arthur Miller’s cruel notes on her neuroses and vulnerability that he later turned into The Misfits (a film she hated) and After the Fall (a play that would have killed her) and narrowly survives a suicide attempt, she needs a friend even more. Lonely and desperate to escape, to flee the hangers-on, the grinding pressures of the film, the press that followed her everywhere and the sycophants who falsely praised her even when she flubbed every line of dialogue, she threw caution to the wind and accepted his invitation to take a week off without tension and terror. “You should get out more—you should see the sights,” he says naïvely. “I am the sights,” she sighs wearily. Nevertheless, she disappears from the set without permission and tours the beauty of the English countryside. From Windsor Castle, where Colin’s godfather (Derek Jacobi) gave Marilyn a private tour, to skinny-dipping in a pastoral pond, a platonic relationship took roots. Discovering a freedom of self-expression she never knew, Marilyn’s self-confidence grew. Unfortunately, like countless others who fell under her spell, Colin mistook her childlike sincerity and sex appeal for genuine affection, and made the mistake of falling in love. She got some of her lost youth back, but like everything else in her tormented life, the euphoria was temporary. Miraculously, despite the angst, The Prince and the Showgirl finally wrapped, leaving the boy a sadder but wiser man. Her parting words to him were “Thanks for being on my side.”
I truly love this film, and Ms. Williams’s triumph in it. There was only one Marilyn Monroe and nobody will ever duplicate her unique gifts, but this brave, hard-working actress shows the many contrasting moods of a complex woman with inexhaustible craft. Sleeping with photos next to the bed of her mother, before she was taken away to an asylum, and Abraham Lincoln, whom she pretended was her father, she touches your heart until it cracks. “Everyone looks at me and they see Marilyn Monroe,” confides the woman who used to be a penniless sweater girl named Norma Jean Dougherty. “Then when they find out I’m not her, they run.” I was so focused that the film gave me neck pain, but that’s a good thing. I usually get a headache for all the wrong reasons and none of the right ones. Something moved me deeply watching Ms. Williams as the tragic Marilyn, illuminating the girlish joy, erotic glamour and self-destructive suffering of a public icon who was privately a bottomless pit of need. Whatever else you think of My Week With Marilyn, make no mistake about it—you know you have been to the movies.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
Running Time 99 minutes
Written by Adrian Hodges
Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh