In the weekly grind of reviewing what passes for movies today, “perfection” is a word I rarely have the occasion to use. A wonderful and enchanting work of artistry such as My Week With Marilyn is the exception. What an extraordinary thrill to leave a movie exhilarated instead of drained. It’s a magical experience.
This is the moving, true story of a young man named Colin Clark who, in 1956, went to London to work as an assistant on the highly anticipated movie, The Prince and the Showgirl, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier and co-starring the most desirable woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe. Clark eventually graduated to an exalted go-for position as the third assistant to the director, which included serving tea, soothing jangled nerves and acting as a bodyguard to the Hollywood goddess on her first visit to England.
It was a dream come true for the starry-eyed 23-year-old, whose wealthy parents considered his job nothing more than slumming. But he got a close-up of filmmaking at its most glamorous and stressful, and as the strenuous film dragged on, he logged every detail in his diaries, which were published in the form of a 1999 memoir called The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me (St. Martin’s Press) and expanded into a second book called My Week with Marilyn (Weinstein Books, 2011).
This film might not appeal to those too young to understand the colossal charisma of the tragic ingénue. But for legions of movie buffs who grew up on this stuff, My Week With Marilyn opens up a world of wide-eyed wonder while revealing the pain, frustration and sweat behind the scenes. You feel like you were there, and thanks to the incandescent performance by Michelle Williams as Monroe, I promise you’ll get to know the conflicted woman behind the diamonds and sunglasses better than you ever will from the continuing parade of biographies.
Eddie Redmayne, the versatile, Tony-winning actor, is a sexy combination of open-hearted youth and maturing hormones as a boy taking his first steps into manhood. Some critics have contested the accuracy of Clark’s books, claiming that he never got any closer to Monroe than fetching coffee. Who cares? His memories, no matter how hyperbolic, make for first-rate filmmaking, and the script by Adrian Hodges distills every rapturous moment from his memoirs. According to him, Monroe took a fancy to a sympathetic boy with no agenda who adored her unconditionally, mainly because he was protective, unselfish and a reminder of her own lost innocence. Kenneth Branagh is the distinguished Olivier, whose patience soon plummets into rage as Monroe keeps everyone waiting for hours on end, including one of England’s most revered character actresses, Dame Sybil Thorndyke (Judi Dench in a luminous performance). Among the supporting players, Harry Potter’s Emma Watson is a wardrobe assistant with her own crush on Clark; Julia Ormond is a beautifully realized Vivien Leigh, who excelled in Monroe’s role onstage but was too old for the screen; and Toby Jones (who should have won an Oscar for Infamous) is Marilyn’s press agent. Simon Curtis, a seasoned London stage director making his feature-film debut, does a masterful job handling the minutest moments with delicacy and candor. It just doesn’t get any better than that. My Week With Marilyn is pure perfection.
Like eyes growing accustomed to the dark, it takes awhile to adjust to Williams. I’ve seen drag queens who look more like the real Monroe. Her eyes are too big, the contours of her face lack the jawline that stopped traffic and she’s missing those splendiferous curves. But Williams does her own singing and dancing, and she’s letter perfect. Everything about the legendary sex goddess comes alive, too—the breathless voice, the undulating poitrine, the tousled mop of bottle-blonde hair, the insecure body language that translated into power—as Williams grows into the role like new skin. The illusion grows on you, like lichen. Scene by scene, she melts into the picture. By the end, she is no longer an imposter; she’s the real deal, inhabiting Monroe’s body, heart and soul.
As production on the ill-fated Prince and the Showgirl dragged on, the frightened American star grew more dependent on the English boy’s sweetness. After she narrowly survives a suicide attempt, she needs a friend even more. Desperate to escape the grinding pressures of filming, she threw caution to the wind and accepted his invitation to take a week off. She disappears from the set without permission and tours the English countryside. From Windsor Castle, where Colin’s godfather (Derek Jacobi) gave Monroe a private tour, to skinny-dipping in a pastoral pond, a platonic relationship took roots. Discovering a freedom of self-expression she never knew, Marilyn’s self-confidence grew. Unfortunately, Colin mistook her childlike sincerity for genuine affection, and made the mistake of falling in love. She got some of her lost youth back, but like everything else in her tormented life, the euphoria was temporary. Miraculously, The Prince and the Showgirl finally wrapped, leaving the boy a sadder but wiser man.
I truly love this film, and Williams’ triumph in it. There was only one Monroe and nobody will ever duplicate her unique gifts, but this brave, hard-working actress shows the many contrasting moods of a complex woman with inexhaustible craft. I was so focused that the film gave me neck pain, but that’s a good thing. I usually get a headache for all the wrong reasons and none of the right ones. Something moved me deeply watching Williams illuminate the girlish joy, erotic glamour and self-destructive suffering of a public icon who was privately a bottomless pit of need. Whatever else you think of My Week With Marilyn, make no mistake about it—you know you have been to the movies.
My Week With Marilyn (R) ★★★★☆