My Week With Marilyn wants to have it both ways with the Marilyn Monroe myth. On the surface it seems to be a more nuanced portrait of the troubled star, showing her in private moments of weakness and getting great comic mileage out of how exasperating she could be to her co-stars. But based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, a young man who worked with her on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl and was understandably smitten, the movie is locked inside the swoony point of view of a young man who spent a week with his idol. As much as Michelle Williams does terrific, deeply layered work in the title role, and a number of other strong supporting performances back her up, My Week With Marilyn is as shallow and fluffy as The Prince and the Showgirl itself. It's entertaining enough, but a terribly missed opportunity as well.
In 1956, freshly married to Arthur Miller and by far the most famous woman on the planet, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) traveled to England to star in a light comedy opposite Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), lion of Shakespearean acting who was also directing. Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) was a recent Oxford graduate who "ran away to the circus" to find work in Olivier's office, only to be assigned to accompany Monroe during her time in England and run interference between her and her co-star and director, who almost immediately began to loathe her. The Monroe who arrived on the set was often the one we hear about in rumors, irrational and insecure and constitutionally incapable of showing up on time. But every time Olivier threatened to storm off set and fire her, she'd turn on the charm-- in the film's opening sequence we see her perform "Heat Wave" under sultry purple lights, and we along with everyone on the Prince and the Showgirl set spend much of the movie waiting to see her turn that on again.
Colin Clark, on the other hand, will gladly take anything she's offering, and Redmayne spends much of the movie gazing at WIlliams like a lovesick puppy, never understanding that Monroe's instant attachment to him was not true love, but a manic depressive propping herself up thanks to a willing enabler. And knowing that the movie is based only on Clark's account of their one-on-one time, it's hard not to be skeptical of scenes where she invites him into her bed and confesses he's the only person who know her, or takes him skinny dipping in a pond, emerging dripping wet like a Greek goddess and pin-up girl wrapped into one. The historical record shows that this was not a great romance for the ages, but Clark and the movie seem to disagree, forcing us into his moony obsession without ever taking the necessary step back to see Monroe for the manipulative depressive she really was.
Luckily, the actors seem perfectly aware of it, and to a person deliver the kind of sharp, nuanced performances that buoy the movie entirely. The MVP, of course, is Michelle Williams, who with her big expressive and a body that sways and shimmies re-invents Marilyn before your eyes, unveiling her insecurities and talents without ever buying into the overbearing Marilyn myth. Her scenes with Redmayne crackle with sexual desire thanks to his nicely restrained performance, but it's far more fun to see her spar with Branagh, who plays the self-important Olivier for great comic effect but without ever tearing down a man Branagh clearly reveres. Julia Ormond, Harry Potter's Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper and Dougray Scott round out the handsome cast, none of them doing particularly difficult work but all lending to the film's polish and enjoyable energy.
For as much as he seems more concerned with sending his audience away happy than digging into his fascinating leading lady, director Simon Curtis does nicely by both the film's darker moments (Marilyn's breakdowns in the company of her acting coach are especially voyeuristic and heartbreaking) and even the forced happy ending, which allows you to forget for a moment how tragically Monroe's own life ended. Williams never lets you forget it, which is just part of what makes her performance stand so far above the movie that surrounds her. Without her it might have been possible to be happy with My Week With Marilyn as another diverting bit of Marilyn-ophilia, but Williams makes it possible to want more. Maybe one day someone else will make the excellent movie to match her performance, but in the meantime My Week With Marilyn is an acceptable, ultimately forgettable substitute.