For as long as I can remember, I have accepted the status of Marilyn Monroe as an icon and a sex symbol without really “getting” it myself. Oh sure, I could see her obvious physical attributes, but it pretty much ended there. And while I won’t say that Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn has turned me into a Monroe fan, it did give me a better sense of the woman’s immense appeal than any film starring her ever has. And I don’t think it’s entirely due to Michelle Williams’ uncanny portrayal of the actress, though her performance is certainly worthy of all the praise that’s been lavished on it. (It’s also a delight to see Ms. Williams showcased in a glamorous role, since she is all too often in grubby indie dramas—and it’d be amusing to see an actress snag an Oscar for glamming up rather than down for a change.)
Not to short Williams, but it’s as much the film itself—indeed, the very genesis of the film—that gets to the mystery of the Monroe mystique. That it does so without demystifying that mystique is nothing short of a minor movie miracle. The fact that the film is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark (played in the film by Brit TV actor Eddie Redmayne) is in itself telling. Here is a man—the self-confessed underachiever son of Sir Kenneth Clark—who seems to have spent his entire life chewing over the one week he spent with her during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957. To say that his brush with Monroe—whether or not the brief relationship was ever consummated—had an impact on him would be an understatement. He nicely stands in for everyone who fell under her spell—either in real life or in a cinema audience. He merely got closer than most. Whether that was a blessing or a curse is an open question.
The film presents Colin as a moviestruck young man who—following an encounter with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh in a role no one else could pull off)—talks his way into a job with Olivier’s production company during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. Much of the film involves the troubled making of that film and Olivier’s frustration with, and admiration for, Monroe. It’s a complex relationship for the experienced actor, who, like the rest of the world at the time, seems to have had a crush on the actress. Olivier is stumped by her lack of interest in him, stymied by his inability to control her, and more than a little put out by the fact that when she’s onscreen no one else much matters. He’s also perplexed and annoyed by her fondness for Colin, but perfectly willing to use it if it will help keep her in line. Monroe’s own reasons for being attracted to Colin seem to be grounded in the innocence of his devotion to her—or his image of her.
The film traces her encounters with Colin, her rocky relationship with husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and her troubles on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. But neither the film, nor Michelle Williams, is content to present Monroe in the usual simplistic terms of the “poor, tragic Marilyn” whom no one understands—including herself. On the contrary, not only do quite a few people have at least a glimmer of what she’s about, but Williams’ Marilyn—while troubled, confused and insecure—has a pretty solid grasp on what it means to be Marilyn Monroe, how to use it, and how to turn it on and off. This Marilyn is actually more tragic than the usual “little girl lost” one (a notion the film actually debunks in passing). This is a woman of considerably more self-awareness than that, and yet she’s incapable of holding onto that awareness or saving herself with it. It’s a remarkable portrait and one that makes My Week with Marilyn a special film and one of the season’s must-sees. Rated R for some language.