'My Week With Marilyn' NYFF Review: Michelle Willams Scores Again, But 'The Blonde's Speech' Stutters To Say Anything New

'My Week With Marilyn' NYFF Review: Michelle Willams Scores Again, But 'The Blonde's Speech' Stutters To Say Anything New

Oct 10, 2011

Finally, a movie about Marilyn Monroe for people who've never wanted to know anything about her!  

There's precisely one interesting moment in Simon Curtis' My Week With Marilyn, and the extent to which the film seems maddeningly oblivious to the beat's significance and arresting effect is pretty much all you have to know about this sunny, staid, and schematic title, a film that seems made for The Golden Globes. Marilyn Monroe (a valiant Michelle Williams) has arrived in England to star in Laurence Olivier's light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, and she's brought the full impact of untenable celebrity along with her. The production is fraught with tension from the start, as Monroe's erratic behavior and crippling self-doubt don't sit well with her director's high-strung pragmatism (Kenneth Branagh is almost inevitably Olivier, hammier here than a Christmas dinner). Monroe's only confidant on set is Olivier's third assistant director, a plucky young lad named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who wears his mess of freckles as if they're tiny moons of  innocence that got lost on the way to his wide eyes. Clark's dream is to become a filmmaker, and -- thanks to a heap of determination and some rather auspicious family connections -- his first gig has afforded him an intimate moment with the most famous movie star on the planet.

He's been sent to Monroe's dressing room to fetch her script, when out she steps from the shower, immodestly naked from head to toe. The world had already been granted a glimpse of her breasts in the famous Tom Kelley photos that would eventually circulate in the pages of Playboy, but here's a young man -- likely a virgin -- being offered a rare glimpse of the whole flesh, awe-smacked by a sudden confrontation with the sort of intensely unknowable natural glory that civilians seldom get to see without narration by Werner Herzog. Curtis' camera stands behind Michelle Williams. In the foreground: The creases in her ass like the silhouette of an upturned fishing hook -- in the background: Eddie Redmayne's slacken face. But his jaw is barely half-way to the floor by the time the film has skipped along to the next scene, probably a bit in which Monroe flubs her lines and Olivier is all like, "I find it very frustrating when you flub your lines!"

The speed at which Curtis tepidly skitters passed a moment so critical to the experience of his young protagonist is emblematic of this hollow reverie -- here's a film which ostensibly exists to depict how Marilyn Monroe was devoured alive by her own iconography, and yet it steadfastly adheres to the shrouded gaze of myth, persistently perpetuating the legend even as it tries to humanize the woman behind it. Sure, by anchoring the narrative from Clark's perspective (the film is adapted from his two memoirs about his time with Monroe), My Week With Marilyn is primed to depict how celebrity distorts the give and take of human relationships, but the film itself is too seduced by her myth to challenge it. From the front, the shot may have suggested a pathological desire to be loved, and the private lengths to which Monroe was willing to exaggerate her image in order to aggressively pursue that goal, a shot from Clark's P.O.V. perhaps aligning the audience with the protagonist's mistaken belief that he's seeing a side of the superstar reserved just for him, its mass-display simultaneously subverting that very notion.

But My Week With Marilyn is not that kind of film. It's not bold or curious or any of the other adjectives that could be used to describe most of the recent films to which Michelle Williams has leant her talents -- My Week With Marilyn is merely anecdotal. Like a more handsome and gilded riff on the coming-of-stage template recently seen in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, Simon Curtis' film offers a gossamer glimpse of a mega-star as seen through the eyes of an impressionable young nobody. And much like that film, My Life With Marilyn wastes the spirited performance of a hyper-talented young actor impersonating a 20th century screen icon in a film that isn't sophisticated enough to allow the portrayal to blossom beyond the realm of facsimile.

Williams is a charming if familiar Marilyn Monroe -- she's no match for Theresa Russell's addictively wild take on the bombshell in Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance, but her obvious intelligence and anxious crystal eyes suggest myriad dimensions which the film never bothers to explore. The cast around her does their best to enliven the material -- Judi Dench, Toby Jones, and Emma Watson just a few of the famous faces that up in supporting roles, but the characters are so baldly utilitarian that together they seem bumbling around a well-funded game of dress-up (and the guy playing legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff isn't even afforded any lines!). Curtis might have mitigated or even mined relevance from that artifice by better mediating between Monroe's screen and physical images, but all we get is a cloyingly on-the-nose voiceover to root us firmly (and exclusively) in the past.

The Marilyn Monroe that Clark seems to remember is the one who all of us already know. She's sexy! She's suppliant! She's vulnerable! She's manipulative! She's controlled! She's a real human being (and a real hero). The film wants to ask the question that one of its characters literally voices: "What's it like to be the most famous woman in the world" But the question it does ask is: "Was Marilyn Monroe a good actress" Its only answer seems to be that she was no Laurence Olivier, but he couldn't carry Some Like it Hot.  

Sitting through My Life With Marilyn, stifled by the experience despite its lovely production and winsome performances, I was reminded of the wisdom immortalized by The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." If only Simon Curtis had recognized that when the legend becomes obvious, you should print something else. 

Eat your heart out, Hollywood Foreign Press. 

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