Reviews

In 'My Week with Marilyn', Michelle Williams Is Mesmerizing

Tricia Olszewski

My Week with Marilyn shows Monroe's devastating self-destructiveness, fueled by a lack of confidence and fear of abandonment so severe they nearly paralyze her. Michelle Williams gets it all right, and it’s mesmerizing.


My Week with Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Cast: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, Judi Dench, Dougray Scott, Derek Jacobi
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-23 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-11-25 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.