Being reductive about a film as lovingly crafted as ‘My Week With Marilyn’ feels a bit cheap, but considering Oscar season is all about reductions: if you were wondering which upcoming bit of Oscar bait could be the heir(ess) apparent to ‘The King’s Speech’ look no further than ‘Marilyn.’ From the film’s main theme (by ‘The King’s Speech’ composer Alexandre Desplat) to the presence of Harvey Weinstein’s name in credits to a lead performance, here by Michelle Williams, that seems destined for awards glory, ‘My Week With Marilyn’ shares more with the most recent Best Picture winner than you might have assumed. Which is its strength, as well as its limitation.
Based on the diaries of Colin Clark, ‘My Week With Marilyn’ is a coming-of-age story masked as a biopic. Or a biopic masked as a coming-of-age story. In 1956, at the ripe age of “nearly 24,” Clark (Eddie Redmayne) leaves home to work as a third assistant director on the set of ‘The Princess and the Showgirl’ with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Marilyn Monroe (Williams). Over the course of the shoot — which Monroe extends beyond the norms because of her devotion to the Method style of acting championed by Lee and Paula Strasberg — Clark and the world’s most famous leading lady fall into a complicated relationship of love and need, much to the consternation of Olivier, Marilyn’s main handler Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper, in full Howard Stark mode) and Colin’s maybe-girlfriend Lucy (Emma Watson, Hermione’ing it up). Colin’s in over his head with Marilyn, but the pull of her come-hither winks and little-girl-lost persona is too much for any man to stand. At least that’s what the film tells us. Repeatedly. Like ‘The King’s Speech,’ this is a “tell, don’t show” production: through needless voiceover and heavy-handed dialogue, ‘My Week With Marilyn’ hammers home its slight points — that Colin will get his heart broken; that Monroe is playing a part and unable to escape, even if she wants to — in a way that recalls an HBO telefilm. Thank goodness then for the performances.
Not that you’re surprised, but Williams is perfection as Ms. Monroe. She nails the nuance and subtlety of the role — which really requires three different personalities: the public Marilyn Monroe, the private Marilyn Monroe and the part in ‘The Princess and the Showgirl.’ “You want to think of them together, because they need to adhere,” Williams said at a post screening Q&A at the New York Film Festival on Sunday. “I know that there are three different aspects, but I don’t know how much it helps to think of them as three separate people.”
Williams is the least showy aspect of the film, an astonishing fact since so many portrayals of Monroe border on cartoon. You can tell the work she put into this performance: not just with the voice, mannerisms and attitude, but with the eyes. Williams draws you into Monroe’s wounded soul slowly, carefully and deliberately. It’s really too early to discuss Oscar locks and frontrunners — not that we haven’t already — but it seems highly probable that Williams will be on the short-list of Best Actress contenders come next February.
As for the rest of the cast: Redmayne is adorably naive and mouth-gaped throughout, giving Colin a bit of hapless charm that never feels forced. Branagh gets the showboat-y role of Olivier — Sir Larry to his friends — playing the acting titan as both blustering idiot and cold-eyed perfectionist, an aging prat who uses “honesty” as a way to cut down all opponents. Everyone else is reliably British and solid, with Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones and Julia Ormand knocking out their brief scenes and moments with professionalism and grace.
Which is the problem: for a movie about a forbidden love with one of Hollywood’s biggest and most inscrutable stars, ‘My Week With Marilyn’ feels too professional. It’s all too safe. Like ‘The King’s Speech,’ it’s as gorgeous as a still photograph — the film never moves. Simon Curtis, a veteran of British television work making his feature debut here, has something to with that — his style makes Tom Hooper look like David Fincher — but he’s given no help from the on-the-nose script. Not that it ultimately matters: ‘My Week With Marilyn’ is a performance movie and, as Redmayne confirmed after the film, that is Curtis’s strength. “The reason so many extraordinary actors were working on this film was because they love working for Simon,” said Redmayne. “He has a wonderful facility with actors.”
All of which is to say, don’t be surprised if Harvey Weinstein has another Oscar ace up his sleeve; after all, the actor’s branch is the largest voting block in the Academy. When The Weinstein Company grabbed Cannes favorite ‘The Artist,’ many assumed it would become Harvey’s Best Picture cause célèbre. It still might. With ‘My Week With Marilyn,’ though, ‘The Artist’ could very well have some inter-office company.
[Photo: The Weinstein Company]
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