Portraying Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous Hollywood stars of all time, is maybe as difficult a task as any actress could attempt. It’s not just that Monroe was—and still is—an enduring pop culture icon, it’s that her infamous persona is so defined and ingrained in the collective pop culture consciousness, that any woman attempting the role has the tricky job of playing her to a tee while never mocking her singular ticks and expressions.
In My Week With Marilyn, Michelle Williams’ splendid performance as the late cinematic demigoddess is more than just girlish giggles, sultry baby talk, hips, lips, hair and a walk like “Jell-O on springs”. The performance is a profoundly inquisitive one. Sure, Monroe was a great beauty, movie star, and icon—but was she the ditz, the floozy, or the sickly pill popper that history has condemned her as? If by the end of the film you’re not sure you quite understand who Monroe was, don’t fret. You’re not supposed to. She’s eternally an enigma, always a mystery to her colleagues, fans, and, most of all, herself.
Based on the real-life memoirs of a young 3rd Assistant Director named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), My Week With Marilyn tells of Monroe’s eight-week film shoot in London in 1956, while making a “light comedy” called The Prince and the Showgirl. When the film begins, Colin is watching one of Monroe’s signature, ultra-glam, man-meat musical numbers on the big screen, professing in voice over his immediate admiration of the famous sex symbol. After a frenzy of anticipation for her arrival in the U.K., the star glowingly maneuvers down the airplane steps and instantly reincarnates the plasticity of her on screen character with flirtatious quips and fetching grins and giggles.
That’s the Marilyn that everyone desires and expects, but who is she really? Working on the film as well is actor, director, and Shakespeare enthusiast Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Branagh gives an appropriately histrionic performance as the famed British thespian, balancing awe at Monroe’s on screen radiance and frustration with her unprofessionalism. Julia Ormand plays Olivier’s lifelong love, Vivien Leigh, an aging legend dealing with her own career-twilight insecurities (as well as occasional flashes of her notorious manic depression).
Much of the story revolves around the tumultuous production of Olivier’s film—including the genial participation of Judi Dench’s patient and motherly Dame Sybil Thorndike—but for one short week, Monroe takes Colin under her wing, effectively making him her impromptu beau, pet and guardian. He spends as much time coaxing her out of medicated comas as enjoying her effervescent disposition. The narrative, ultimately, becomes one about the hard lessons of first love learned by a young man whose first love happened to be Marilyn Monroe. Not that she could possibly return the sentiment, as the cute wardrobe artist (Emma Watson) precociously warns. But the film’s tone has an air of loving remembrance, evoking the feeling that perhaps Colin, in those few short days, came closer to knowing the real Marilyn Monroe than anyone before or since.
In no time though, Marilyn is back to pleasing her public. The two take a tour of Windsor Castle and run across a cheering section of maids, butlers and cooks. Monroe sweetly whispering to Colin, “Shall I be her?” before putting on an ostentatious modeling display for her admirers. The suggestion is that the star was always playing a part. Michelle Williams does about as brilliant a job depicting the complex movie star as I could imagine. The resemblance between the two—after the hair and makeup applications—is not dead ringing, however, as is the case with any good biopic, Williams inhabits the role completely, and the audience becomes absolutely convinced that in the universe of the film: she is Marilyn Monroe. That’s the best praise I can give.
The movie itself begins to show stitching, once the initially erratic pacing slows to a halt in the third act. Still, Williams is stunning, and her performance digs at the core of Hollywood mythology. Who are the celebrities we love? There are the fictional characters they portray on screen, the characters they play for tabloids and interviews, and then there are the real human beings hidden somewhere underneath it all. In Monroe’s case, it’s melancholic to think that maybe even she wasn’t sure who that was. One of the major themes of the film—something that bugs the heck out of Mr. Olivier—is the question about whether Monroe was really an actress or just an inherently magnificent movie star. To paraphrase Ms. Williams herself: Marilyn was indeed a great actress—and the greatest character she ever played was Marilyn Monroe.