At a time when movies like "The Artist" and "Hugo" render tribute to earlier cinematic achievements, "My Week with Marilyn" dares to celebrate failure.
Set within "The Prince and the Showgirl," this movie's real context can be found behind the Klieg lights and beyond the studio gates. That was the territory covered in two memoirs by the late Colin Clark, a flunky on the ill-starred 1957 production, who had a crush on star Marilyn Monroe.
The well-connected Clark, a son of art historian Kenneth Clark, went on to a long career as a writer and filmmaker. But this movie provided him with his first job, and he turned his diaries into a sort of "making of" memoir in 1995. Five years later, he returned with a less discreet sequel, focused on a brief interlude in the middle of the shoot.
Much of the dialogue and narration in Adrian Hodges' script comes directly from Clark's writing. But even with a sympathetic portrayal by Eddie Redmayne, Colin remains the average white male telling the tale of a far more beguiling character. What elevates this movie above the run-of-the-mill biopic is its surprising Marilyn, Michelle Williams.
With no pretense to any profound insight, "My Week with Marilyn" depends on an actress who can portray Monroe's fumbling nervousness before her grandiose co-star, as well as the lightning she could bottle on screen. Not only is Williams up to that difficult task, she also makes Monroe the woman exactly life size.
Williams is needy, bubbly, weepy, uninhibited, hemmed in. She is trying to find one moment to be herself even as she comfortably slips in and out of roles. She's also funny and sexy and fine at every moment.
The real Marilyn, Clark wrote, "needed someone to talk to, someone who didn't expect her to be clever or sexy, but just to be whatever she felt she wanted to be."
"The Prince and the Showgirl" paired Hollywood sex symbol Monroe with the pre-eminent diva of the British stage, Laurence Olivier, who also directed the silly light comedy. His first mistake was casting himself. He second was his condescending treatment of his leading lady.
Both Olivier and Simon Curtis, the director of "My Week with Marilyn" are well served by the version of Sir Laurence offered up by Kenneth Branagh. Although lacking the matinee idol looks, Branagh has the dramatic elocution, the smoldering glances and the commanding gestures down.
Branagh's Olivier is occasionally accompanied by his wife at the time, the beautiful Vivien Leigh, played by the beautiful Julia Ormond. In her brief appearances, Ormond suggests cool but brittle intelligence and charm, and the nerves of both an actress of a certain age and the wife of a philandering husband.
Some of the facts presented here are correct: Olivier and Leigh had played the leads in Terence Rattigan's play. But when it came time to cast the movie, director Olivier jettisoned his 43-year-old wife for Monroe, 30. Of course, their problems went well beyond that decision, to Leigh's bipolar disorder and tuberculosis as well as Olivier's lifestyle choices in an era when John Gielgud had been arrested for propositioning a man.
This being a British biopic, any mention of such unpleasantness will be promptly shown the door. But Branagh at least illustrates it, in scenes where Olivier carefully colors his eyebrows or becomes ever more florid in response to Monroe's chronic lateness and nerves. Only a jolly Judi Dench, as Sybil Thorndike, treats Marilyn decently.
What especially gets under Olivier's mascara is Marilyn's method acting coach and confidante, Paula Strasberg, played by Zoë Wanamaker. She's excellent, but the movie can't decide whether her character is. By this time it was obvious that Olivier's big voice, big gesture, aim for the balcony stagecraft did not adapt well to film. But this movie seems to share his disdain for the preposterous American idea that actors should understand their characters.