The hips. They’re the first thing you notice in My Week with Marilyn, which begins with Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “Heat Wave,” in There’s No Business Like Show Business. Her silhouette is startling, less like a Coke bottle than a deeply undulating sine wave. It’s 1956, and fellas of all ages are watching the star onscreen, their mouths agape or frozen in foolish grins. She sings, “I started a heat wave / By letting my seat wave.” Indeed.
Monroe is portrayed by Michelle Williams, and for the rest of the film’s 101 minutes, you can’t take your eyes off her. It’s not just her outward allure, enhanced by prosthetic curves and teeth, a wig made of platinum curls, and perfect ‘50s-style makeup (red lips, milky white powder) that transform Williams into Monroe’s virtual double. It’s her innocence, suggested in childish self-expressions (“Oh, phooey!”) as well as her high-pitched, nearly breathless voice. But mostly it’s her devastating self-destructiveness, fueled by a lack of confidence and fear of abandonment so severe they nearly paralyze her. Williams gets it all right, and it’s mesmerizing.
As you can’t look away, you reflect the men and women in the film. Monroe attracts them like a magnet, even when she’s pissing them off. My Week with Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis and adapted by Adrian Hodges from memoirs by Colin Clark, recounts (and fictionalizes) a week during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl. Monroe shot the film in England with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), costarring with Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) and attended by doggedly Method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). Clark (Eddie Redmayne), initially one of those grinning fools at the movie theater, makes a laser-focused attempt to get involved in the movie business, via a relationship between his wealthy parents and Olivier. He lands a position as third assistant to the director on Prince, and that grin never really wears off. It’s kind of annoying and sometimes downright creepy, but you understand, for the sake of the romance, that kid can’t help it.
From Colin’s perspective, the many times that Monroe screws up — arriving late on set or not at all, drugging herself into oblivion, freezing when it’s time for her line — aren’t her fault. He doesn’t see everything we see, and he sees her misbehaving as being misunderstood. She alienates some (mainly her then-husband, Arthur Miller, played by Dougray Scott) and irritates others (Olivier, in a fit of pique, remarks, “Trying to teach her how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger!”). But she also has loyal cheerleaders, particularly Strasberg, the sweet and wise Dame Sybil, and 23-year-old Clark himself, whom the 30-year-old Monroe somewhat astonishingly pulls further into her world.
On one level, the source of her effect is obvious: as a reporter tells Olivier, “With tits like that, you have to make allowances.” It’s this effect that has inspired Olivier to cast her: The Prince and the Showgirl is here described as “the lightest of comedies,” and apart from Monroe’s disturbing meltdowns, it applies to My Week with Marilyn as well.
That is, the movie is, on its surface, about the bloom of first love, as Clark falls head-over-heels for the star, who runs along a grassy lake shore, skinny-dips with him, and invites him to cuddle in bed. (The wardrobe assistant he’s already started dating, a horribly wigged Emma Watson, is not amused.) Their scenes together are mostly featherweight, filled with giggles and romping and just the slightest hint that Norma Jeane had actually been playing a character all along. “Shall I be her?” Monroe asks Clark when they encounter a group of fans on a sidewalk — just before she collapses in fear at their aggressive pawing and screaming.
Such obvious scenes demonstrate the one of the film’s faults, its alternating investment in Colin’s version of events and its critique of Monroe’s manipulations of this investment. For one thing, you don’t quite believe the relationship — and yes, things do get kissy — between Colin and Monroe. He may be the man who’s the nicest to her, but Redmayne is just too goofy to be taken seriously as this woman’s romantic interest. (That smile: you want to smack it off his face.) Olivier, who’s initially besotted, appears a more likely fling (and his wife, Vivien Leigh [Julia Ormond] suggests this is his first inclination), even if he, domineering and reproachful, quickly becomes impatient with his costar’s unprofessional antics. Hell, Dame Sybil seems a more acceptable partner.
Along with the implausibility of the romance, My Week with Marilyn skirts Monroe’s darkness. But when this emerges, it’s certainly affecting — you finally understand why so many people rooted for her, how vulnerable she appeared. If these aspects make My Week With Marilyn seem ultimately inconsequential, it is, in its moment, an enjoyable confection, anchored by Williams’ marvelous performance. The film ends with her singing another song, “That Old Black Magic.” And you realize, again, that you’ve been under her spell.