Chaperone, hand-holder, and would-be lover
In this lightweight but star-studded, touching, and richly produced British entertainment from a memoir (adapted by Adrian Hodges), Eddie Redmayne plays Colin Clark, a patrician young third assistant director (and the memoirist), son of the renowned art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who has a brief romance with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams, again showing her range and skill). This happens during the 1957 Pinewood Studios shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl, which co-stars Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who also directs, and is embarrassed to have had to bring in Marilyn to replace his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) — who played the role with great success on stage, but is too old, at 43, to reenact it on screen. The cast includes Dame Sybil Thorndyke — played here by another Dame, Judy Dench — who, having absolutely nothing to lose, is one of Marilyn’s warmest supporters. Also on hand for this film is Derek Jacobi, and a bevy of good younger English actors, including Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, and even Harry Potter’s Emma Watson, as Lucy, a wardrobe girl Colin briefly dates until Marilyn sweeps him away.
Marilyn, of course, requires a great deal of attention, and that’s where Colin comes in. She drives Olivier nuts by always showing up very late on set, repeatedly blowing even simple lines, and rushing off the set in a tizzy. To reassure her, she has her very own Method coach, the master Lee Strasberg’s wife Paula (Zoë Wanamaker) on duty 24/7 to “coach” her. Olivier thinks little of Method acting. In his opinion, if Marilyn doesn’t “feel” her part, she should just buckle down and pretend. Paula’s coaching mainly means telling Marilyn over and over what a great actress she is. But that’s not enough. The blonde star’s brand new husband, the playright Arthur Miller (Dugray Scott), decides she’s “devouring” him and returns to New York, leaving her alone — a state she cannot stand to be in.
And so it is that young Colin, who’s already proven himself a first-rate gofer and fixer, gets his moment to be the essential man. Marilyn must have company, and warmth, and a little romance. Despite initial restraint, and loyalty to Lucy, he soon relents and falls madly in love with her. He spends a couple of days with her, taking her on a private tour of Windsor Castle — his godfather Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi) happens to be the librarian — and to his old school, Eton (where Ms. Willliams is surrounded by a flurry of real Eton schoolboys and impulsively kisses one), and to a park where the pair go skinny dipping, and kiss. Colin actually spends a night in Marilyn’s bed. This happens when she has taken too many pills and can’t be reached, and the production staff send Colin up a ladder into her bedroom window. Later she apparently has a miscarriage.
This is a euphoric memoir, not so much about events as about a young man’s starry-eyed feelings. It reminded me of Richard Linklater’s 2008 Me and Orson Welles, another story of a young man’s brief encounter with thespian greatness, Mr. Welles and his revolutionary Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar. The young man, played by Zac Efron, isn’t an Old Etonian with impeccable manners, just a high schooler from New Jersey. But he’s romanced too, and dropped, and he too has a backstage girlfriend who becomes disappointed in him. Me and Orson Weles doesn’t have the same glitter, but it has good impersonations too, and recreates a moment in acting and stage history and a young man’s disillusion.
Eddie Redmayne acts out the enchantment and the disillusion beautifully, but the larger pleasure of My Week with Marilyn is its evocation of the moment. The film was shot in the very Pinewood Studio where The Prince and the Showgirl was filmed in 1957; Michelle Williams acts in the house where Marilyn stayed during the shoot. One is meant to savor the impersonations. Michelle’s of Marilyn holds the spotlight as did Marilyn herself during her short life as a star. But this is a traditional English film and hence very much an ensemble work — a collective celebration of the arts of acting and filmmaking; and the production values, cinematography, sets, music, are golden. It’s conveyed to us that despite her monumental insecurities and hopeless background, Marilyn Monroe was screen magic. She had trouble getting her lines right, but when she did, they were zingers. Branagh’s serio-comic turn as Olivier is one of his better recent roles; Julia Ormond’s Vivian Leigh is tasty and elegant; Dame Judy’s Dame Sybil is warm and charming. Dominic Cooper is memorably aggressive as Marilyn’s partner and photographer, Milton H. Greene; Toby Jones, appropriately annoying as some American toady.
As Marilyn, Michelle Williams shivers and glows. She can’t look quite like Marilyn or be as beautiful. But her hard work pays off in her song and dance numbers; in the way she moves when she wiggles and walks; in the way she fills a dress; and she goes through a wealth of facial expressions. Eddie Redmayne, who recently won two awards, in London and New York, for his performance in the play Red, happens to have actually gone to Eton himself, then Cambridge (Colin went to Oxford, close enough). He is a tasteful, understated actor, and has the fresh face to convey the blushing young man, an amalgam of good manners and eagerness who, as the jealous Lucy puts it, needed to get his heart broken, and happily did. This may not be a great film, but it’s impeccable and fun, and it looks likely to draw some attention at Oscar time.
My Week with Marilyn is out in cinemas 25th November 2011.
DIRECTOR: SIMON CURTIS
STARRING: MICHELLE WILLIAMS, EDDIE REDMAYNE, KENNETH BRANAGH, JUDY DENCH, DOMINIC COOPER, TOBY JONES, DEREK JACOBI, EMMA WATSON
RUNTIME: 96 MIN.