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Last year's crop of Oscar contenders included two Weinstein Company pictures that are both movie-movies. The puzzling big winner The Artist is a clever pastiche of silent movie references done with style and grace, that doesn't do much more than recycle ideas from Singin' in the Rain. My Week with Marilyn is a nostalgic personal memoir about the chaotic filming of the 1957 Marilyn Monroe-Laurence Olivier movie The Prince and the Showgirl. The intelligent and perceptive My Week with Marilyn is much more attuned to the past of the movies. It succeeds at what would seem a hopeless task -- presenting believable simulacra for four or five very famous people, including the most famous woman of the 20th century. Meryl Streep's formidable performance as The Iron Lady was an Oscar well earned, but My Week's Michelle Williams had to impersonate a woman whose every gesture and mood is memorized in the fantasies of the great cultural subconscious.
Upper class nice-guy Colin Clarke (Eddie Redmayne) ignores his parents' advice and pursues a career in film, happily ingratiating himself to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and landing a humble but well-positioned 3rd Assistant's job on Olivier's next movie, co-starring and produced by Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Colin is attracted to the middle-class Lucy (Emma Watson), a relationship that stalls when Monroe takes a shine to him. An insecure disaster on the set, the actress drives Olivier mad. Actress Dame Sybil Thorndyke (Judy Dench) and Olivier's wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) add their moral support to the psychological build-up offered by Marilyn's drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), but Marilyn has a strong need for male companionship. Her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) gives up and returns to New York. When Marilyn decides that she can trust Colin, he becomes her confidante and playmate. Colin doesn't know what he's getting himself into. If he falls in love with this woman he knows he'll be terribly hurt. But she needs him...
My Week with Marilyn is a delight from the get-go. Historically, everything we see is closer to the facts, even if screenwriter Adrian Hodges has skipped some of the darker chapters of Colin Clark's book, such as the rank hostility shown the "unprofessional" Ms. Monroe by the English crew. We also get only a brief look at cameraman Jack Cardiff, who claims to have attracted a lot of the actress's attention during filming as well. But what we do see is pretty remarkable, from the 'country" atmosphere of the English studios to the way Colin's posh background helps smooth out his entree into film. He's not afraid of money or unduly cowed by bullies, and his Eton manners are impeccable. When push comes to shove, Colin also has family connections he can exploit. The freckle-faced Eddie Redmayne has the charisma to make Coin extremely likeable. He has smarts and charm yet also carries an invisible flag that says "inexperienced." He's just the kind of guy Monroe would trust. When she asks, "Colin, whose side are you on?" he comes back with just the right look of friendly concern.
Although Michelle Williams is roughly similar to Marilyn Monroe, most of her artistic transformation is managed through behavior and body language. Ms. Williams gets all kinds of details exactly right; we recognize many spot-on gestures and facial patterns. She captures the allure of MM, and makes us react as we would to the bona fide original item. Williams' performance makes an Interesting contrast with that of Theresa Russell in Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance. Both films have miscarriage scenes.
Kenneth Branagh's impersonation of Laurence Olivier is almost as impressive. The makeup take a moment to get accustomed to, but the illusion is maintained even when the camera moves in close. Those viewers unfamiliar with Olivier might think that this version looks like a morph between Branagh and a thin John Goodman. But Branagh makes it work, even when his character is painted up for the camera, and looks like a warmed-over corpse.
We've all read about the travails of directors faced with an MM who shows up late or not at all for work, only to collapse into an emotional funk and retreat back to her dressing room. Billy Wilder filled a book with remarks, jokes, and curses about his experience, and he worked with her twice. My Week with Marilyn shows Olivier burning his bridge to a personal connection with Marilyn right at the start, when he implores, "Marilyn, just try to be sexy. Isn't that what you do?" Apparently the great actor wasn't exactly a pillar of tact. Viewers familiar with Olivier might think that My Week makes him into something of a straight man reacting to events he can't control. Wasn't the real life Olivier more than a little vain and troublesome as well?
The Paula Strasberg character is handled with discretion, as we see that she's necessary to get MM to face the day's work, even if she is a pain in the tail. Judy Dench's Dame Sybil could have been a wax figure, but the film underscores her generous and sensitive "trouper" attitude toward the obviously neurotic Marilyn. The script also uses Thorndyke to get at the resentful, rebellious attitude of the English crews. When she reminds a grip to temper his hostility, she's like a socialist party representative demanding solidarity from the troops. She even says "we all used to be Communists then." The show has enough on its hands already, but I'd like to read Colin Clarke's book to learn more about English labor unrest in the movie industry -- my education ends at I'm All Right, Jack.
With practically everyone on the set at Colin's throat, including MM's agent, the "new boy" is the one chosen to take a fantastic, dreamy, erotic detour with Marilyn, who includes him in her conspiracy against her prison keepers: "What would Sir Laurence say if he could see us now?" He ends up being summoned to MM's house at all hours of the night, which of course means that poor Lucy is left in the dust. Colin witnesses her caprices and her bouts with depression. She can be a delight and also quite frightening. Although perfectly capable of seeing things as they are, Marilyn is in the vortex of her own personal celebrity trap, the center of a private universe.
Williams conveys the contradictions without offering an easy solution to the MM puzzle. She's a heartbreaking child but also an emotional menace to herself and others. She's like a personality with some parts exaggerated and others suppressed -- a fantastically attractive psychotic. We see her entire self-esteem rise and fall drastically on the slightest emotional impetus. She desperately needs people to love her. It's no wonder that just a few negative words written by her husband devastate her, and drive an immediate wedge into their marriage.
Yet the mood of My Week with Marilyn remains light and airy. Colin spends a magical, once-in-a-life day with MM, visiting Windsor castle, Eton, and skinny-dipping in a pond. The song Autumn Leaves plays on the radio. And that's the basic magic of the movie ... it's an erotic adventure into movieland history.
Anchor Bay / Weinstein's Blu-ray of My Week with Marilyn is a beauty. The English locations are rich and varied and the lighting on the principals cannot be faulted. Although the visuals are unified in style, more than once the MM aura is evoked through imitations of "looks" well established in our collective culture. An image in the mirror of a makeup table reminds us of a famous B&W still shoot. A dreamy bathtub scene evokes the look of those famous poolside shots from the never completed Something's Gotta Give. The disc's soundtrack makes good use of Ms. William's singing skills -- she sings parts of iconic songs from Let's Make Love, Bus Stop and There's No Business Like Show Business.
The video extra is a long featurette that enlists Ms. Williams to help fill in even more background information on the real events portrayed in the movie; viewers that have never heard of The Prince and the Showgirl will want to check it out. Director Simon Curtis offers an informative commentary about this his first film (!). He tells us that it was probable that Laurence Olivier was hoping for an affair with Monroe, and reminds us that the movie being filmed was a flop. Just as Monroe would soon bounce back in Some Like it Hot, Arthur Miller encouraged Olivier to seek out younger playwrights and he began a new phase of his career with The Entertainer. We're told that Emma Watson took a few days off from her studies at Brown to film her role in the movie. Curtis also explains that Michelle Williams perfected Monroe's body language by learning her little dance in the movie.
It's common practice to see some of the 'big Oscar contender' movies every year and let others slip by -- one can't see everything. The very entertaining My Week with Marilyn is an exceptional show and should be sought out at the earliest opportunity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Week with Marilyn Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.