Tuesday, December 20, 2011


My Week with Marilyn is a lead balloon of a film that so desperately wants to float it’s pathetic. Because director Simon Curtis has the whole endeavor covered in a gloss of prestige – good actors in a based-on-a-true-story period piece about famous people – this is the kind of movie that can be snuck into awards’ season and be essentially taken seriously, whether it deserves it or not. And in this case, the answer is definitely not. If it weren’t a film about Marilyn Monroe (with supporting characters Laurence Olivier, Arthur Miller, and Vivien Leigh, among others) this would be a film entirely undeserving of attention given the dull plotting and total lack of emotional curiosity.

Michelle Williams is one of our finest actresses, but the role of Marilyn Monroe works against the very qualities that make Williams so good. Monroe was her own spotlight. She glowed on screen. Her greatest asset as a screen presence was her very presence. Physical, sensual, she seemed to be both desire incarnate and a total innocent. She was a dumb blonde who was in on the joke. There was some there there, despite appearances.

Williams, on the other hand, has an intense interiority and a sharp intelligence to her acting choices that she uses to draw in sympathy. She’s pretty, to be sure, but she doesn’t use her looks to prop up a persona or win over an audience with easy charm. Her characters aren’t in on any jokes; they’re often struggling to survive. There can be a convincing desperation to the way Williams adapts her physicality to her characters’ struggles. This isn’t to say that Williams is inherently a better actress than Monroe was, nor is she worse. (Though it’s hard to imagine Monroe fitting in a role as complex as the one’s Williams has played in the likes of Blue Valentine and Wendy and Lucy.) It’s simply to say that Monroe and Williams are screen presences who use their bodies to inherently different purposes.

Still, it could have worked. Williams summons up a good enough impression. She does best with the off-screen material where Monroe finds herself completely removed from the spotlight and can drop a bit of her persona. It invites sympathy in a glimmer of the ways Williams is so good at doing just that in other, better films. The problem is the way so much of the film is given over to that persona in a fairly unsympathetic way. It’s a film that pays lip service to her troubles – with marriages, with her career, with pills – but never really seems interested in letting us know her. It neither recreates nor problematizes Monroe’s legend. It’s a film that’s content to gaze at her with mostly unquestioning reverence and a condescending attitude that treats her as a poor thing that needs rescuing.

It’s all a matter of point of view, really. The film, despite being all about Monroe, is on the literal plot level a coming-of-age story about a determined young chap, Colin (Eddie Redmayne), who wants to work in the movies. The lad gets a job as the third assistant to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) who is in the process of gearing up to direct and star in a film opposite Monroe. Over the course of filming, Colin gets an up close (and occasionally a rather intimate) look at the stars’ struggles. He even thinks she’s falling in love with him. She’s certainly flirty enough to lead him to that conclusion. But what is clear is that he loves her. The first scene is the then unemployed Colin watching Monroe in a film. The camera finds him sitting mouth agape in the cinema, staring dumbstruck at the screen. From that first scene all the way to the end, this is a film standing aside, simply regarding Monroe. Adrian Hodges's script wants to have a light comedic touch that also reveals the darker underside to the woman’s life. It just never comes together in such a manner to allow that to happen. It struck me as miscalculated every step of the way.

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