Neely Swanson

Refreshing “Marilyn” film engages [MOVIE REVIEW]

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marilyn monroe

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis's film “My week with Marilyn.” Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/ The Weinstein Company

“My Week with Marilyn” is the beautifully told story of a short but significant period in the lives of Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Lawrence Olivier and, most particularly, Colin Clark.

The film, by director Simon Curtis, is based on Clark’s Diaries, as adapted for the screen by Adrian Hodges. Clark, judged affectionately as the wastrel son of an accomplished academic family led by patriarch Sir Kenneth Clark – later to be internationally famous for his television series “Civilization” – is determined to make his way in films, a business that is strikingly unimpressed with his Eton and Oxford credentials. He is fortunate, however, to have family friends in high places. One of those friends was Lawrence Olivier, who helped secure him a position as a 3rd assistant director, a gofer by any other name, on his film “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Anticipation runs high as Olivier’s co-star is due to arrive shortly from the States – Marilyn Monroe, accompanied by new husband Arthur Miller.

The Marilyn Monroe story has been told to death and it is a tribute to the filmmakers that they have found a new and refreshing angle to present her irresponsible behavior fed by manic insecurities. Seen through the eyes of the 20-something Colin, Marilyn is presented as a sense of wonder – the creature created for an adoring and devouring public in conflict with the truly vulnerable and insecure human being. Monroe was Olivier’s choice of co-star for his directorial debut and she accepted enthusiastically. Olivier hoped the movie would show that he was a film star; Monroe hoped the movie would show she was a great actress. The resulting film did neither for either. What the experience did do was highlight their insecurities in predictable manner – he, with his condescending anger and she with her inability to appear on time or prepared. Adding insult to injury was the constant presence of “method” teacher and Monroe mentor, Paula Strasberg, a person and technique that Olivier loathed.

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As 3rd AD, Colin was both invisible and indispensible, something that suited Monroe very well as she came to rely upon his honesty. Convinced she was surrounded by “enemies,” including her new husband who grew more and more distant until he disappeared altogether back to the States, she eventually co-opted Colin at a time of psychological need to be her tour guide through the surrounding countryside, her translator of English custom and a sympathetic ear to her troubles. It is the week they spent together as he fell under her sway — and she allowed him to — that is the primary focus of a film that is also visited by the likes of a kind and soothing Dame Sybil Thorndike and a jealous Vivian Leigh, who is as manic and insecure as Monroe.

The film is, indeed, a lovely experience, but more than an engaging story it is the characters inhabited by actors at the top of their game that make it sing. Kenneth Branaugh is fine as Olivier, capturing the supercilious arrogance perfectly; even with little screen time, Julia Ormond perfectly embodies the insecurities and increasing mental instability of a Vivien Leigh looking at the downside of her beauty and influence. The reputed warmth of Dame Sybil Thorndike is deepened and personalized by the constantly, and rightfully, lauded Judy Dench; listening to her read a telephone directory, if those even existed anymore, would be pure pleasure. What a delight it is to hear Zoe Wanamaker do a Brooklyn accent as Paula Strasberg; what a greater delight to see the terror behind her character’s eyes as she senses that her control of Monroe is loosening. Eddie Redmayne as Colin is exceptional at inhabiting that sense of Oxbridge entitlement mixed with star-struck delight and innocence. He makes the heartbreak of unattainable love so believable, conveying that sense of “first love is such sweet despair.” He has a beauty that is reminiscent of Michael York at his peak with those piercing eyes, adorable freckles and full lips. We shall, I’m sure, hear much more in the future from Mr. Redmayne.

But it is Michelle Williams, once again, who continues to surprise. That she is an actress of the first rank was already established in films such as “Dick,” “Me Without You,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Wendy and Lucy,” and “Blue Valentine.” In “My Week with Marilyn” she is bright-eyed and luminescent. There was no one like Monroe and no performance will ever replicate what she could do on screen. What Williams is able to deliver, however, is that sense of who Monroe was and who she wanted to be. Cary Grant once said, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” Michelle Williams gives us a Marilyn Monroe who got lost in the pretending but never became that person. Williams delivers that longing and pain but also the childlike mischievousness that was both a private characteristic and one of the keys to her on-screen charisma. She makes us understand, or at the very least believe, that Monroe’s failings toward others were never malicious acts; they were more primal, akin to a small animal backed into a corner.

“My Week with Marilyn” is a story about time and place with a beginning, middle and end, much like the kind of film the Hollywood studios made so well in the 1940s and that the English seem always to have excelled at. Curtis, a renowned theater director also known for his excellent long-form period classics on British television, has fully captured a time gone by populated by names famous and not, telling a story as though filtered through a pink lens. You will be glad to have been invited in, if only for a short time. It is as if everyone involved, creators and viewers, have been reminded of the advice given to Colin: “For a dream to come true, you have to keep your eyes open.”

Opening November 23 at Pacific ArcLight Beach Cities, AMC Del Amo, AMC Rolling Hills and many other screens on the West side.

 


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