Marilyn Monroe is one of those cultural icons who everyone feels entitled to appropriating in their own particular way. Whether it’s because they’ve read all about her and identify with her perpetual state of longing, because they fell in love with her movie performances, or because she represents their ultimate sexual fantasy, Marilyn has become the equivalent of a movie screen where we can all project our desires. Since most of us know her through other cultural mediums—from films, to music to Andy Warhol paintings- - all of which are commercial products, it’s easy to confuse our rights as consumers with our rights of ownership; for the one thing that remains constant is our idea of Marilyn (we’re so close to her that we can also skip her last name) as a goddess.
Whenever someone tries to humanize the “concept” of Marilyn, the results vary from parody to facile psychology, which only contribute to making her even more enigmatic. Considering we live in a society where almost everything can be “figured out”, it’a almost arrogant to think that no one has been able to understand what she did to be so magnetic or how she did it, in order to recreate it. Watching Marilyn onscreen is always magical and everyone wanted to own a piece of that magic.
It makes sense then, that director Richard Curtis begins My Week With Marilyn precisely this way. The first scene shows us Marilyn (Michelle Williams) performing a particularly sizzling version of “Heat Wave” as part of a movie being watched by dozens of adoring fans. Among them is Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a recent college graduate who seems dazzled by the charisma of the movie star. When Marilyn blows a kiss onscreen, Colin gives a quick glance behind him, wondering if it was indeed addressed to him. In the movie he becomes the main proprietor of Marilyn and it makes sense, considering the film is an adaptation of Clark’s memoirs.
As a 23-year-old novice, he got a job as third assistant director to Laurence Olivier (here played by Kenneth Branagh) who was shooting The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn as his co-star. The film chronicles the title week in which the scared actress, who had recently married Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), finds solace from Olivier’s demands and her own personal demons, in Colin’s company. It might be easy to question anything that came out of Clark’s writing, for how can we know that this wasn’t the fantasy of a young adult enamoured by the one woman everyone else in the planet fell for? The simple answer is we can’t, and the movie succeeds at reminding us that Marilyn obsession can sometimes achieve necrophiliac proportions.
The film on its own stands as a satisfying telefilm, in which actors of all generations have a ball providing hammy imitations of well known figures. Branagh is spot-on as the Olivier from The Prince and the Showgirl, an eccentric royal member who can’t believe others defy his authority, Scott is satisfyingly stoic as Miller and Dame Judi Dench is effortlessly charming as Dame Sybil Thorndike, who was perhaps the Dame Judi Dench of her time.
Where the film truly excels is in the performance provided by Williams as Marilyn. Williams, who is a beloved princess of independent cinema, seems to be the only one who truly understands that Marilyn was someone that no one could really own. Therefore, she gives a performance that defies the very intention the film had of revealing something new about the icon. Instead of wasting her time trying to become the Marilyn we all expect her to be, she grabs on to an unexplored aspect of her. Williams realized that since nobody knew who Marilyn really was, she had the liberty to play her as she wished during private scenes. She doesn’t overdo the mimicry (in fact more often than not you can that this isn’t Marilyn, really) and makes us wonder if Marilyn herself wasn’t a performance.
The screenplay provides Marilyn with preposterous lines that try to cover an entire checklist of widely known Monroe references (unhappy childhood, eternal search for a father figure…) but Williams is often working on a different level. One of the plot’s major predicaments has Olivier’s theatrical acting pitched against Marilyn’s devotion to “the Method”, an issue Olivier encountered years later with Dustin Hoffman in the now legendary “why not try acting?” episode. The movie argues that an actor’s fiercest mission is finding “the truth”, but we are never told what exactly is said truth. Williams understood the fact that this truth is purely personal and can not be adjusted to others’ demands.
Perhaps knowing that she would never be able to recreate Marilyn’s own brand of movie magic, she tried to do her special kind of alchemy and delivers a portrait of a woman who was smarter than the world assumed. Perhaps Marilyn was a brilliant performer who couldn’t be contained by those who adored her or by movie screens, someone who might’ve never found “the truth” but who nevertheless knew how to aid people in finding theirs.
Anchor Bay and The Weinstein Company have done a terrific job with the film’s high definition transfer. My Week With Marilyn really offers nothing new in terms of visuals but as the glossy biopic that it is, it couldn’t look better. Extras are scant, if practically nonexistent, and other than an efficient commentary with the director, all we get is a 20 minute documentary that consists mostly of the cast and crew saying how brilliant they all are. Best in show is Williams, who tries to hide the fact that by playing Marilyn like she did, she was committing one of the most unselfish acts in recent film acting—she was truly willing to disappear within a character, knowing that she probably would fail.