“My Week With Marilyn” dramatizes the pairing of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier on the 1956 comedy “The Prince and the Showgirl,” along with a brief intimacy that the troubled Monroe shared with that film’s 23-year-old assistant director, Colin Clark.
As director Simon Curtis brings to life this blip of 1950s popular culture — with its venerable British thespians, sex-bomb Hollywood icon, culture clashes and professional egos — his movie is star-struck fluff. But Michelle Williams’ multi-shaded, soulful portrayal of Monroe makes it a must-see.
Directed competently but conventionally by Curtis from a screenplay by Adrian Hodges (adapting Clark’s diaries), the film is a coming-of-age story with a celebrity hook. Clark’s screen incarnation (played by Eddie Redmayne) leads things off by landing a job as third assistant director (basically, a gofer) on Olivier’s aforementioned production.
Hoping to boost his movie-star status, Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) will costar with Monroe. Conversely, Monroe hopes that working with “Sir Larry” will establish her as a serious actress.
The team-up proves trying. With her casual Hollywood ways, insecurities, chronic lateness and insistence on consulting method-acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) for line-reading advice, Monroe incenses the disciplined, old-school Olivier.
Her private troubles, which include strains in her new marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and a pill problem, intensify her erraticness.
Clark is tasked with keeping Monroe on track, and Monroe takes a liking to the young Brit as he shows her around town. Clark falls under the spell Monroe casts as both sex goddess and abandoned little girl. A romantically charged pal dynamic forms.
Curtis, whose background is in theater and TV, makes his big-screen directorial debut, and at times this movie feels as stagy as the British acting styles it depicts as starchy. It contains little originality or psychological depth.
We get lots of Monroe exasperating Olivier, who comes off as vain and annoyed. What are her thoughts on acting, cinema or the 1950s political climate in which her husband has been branded a Red?
But when focusing on Monroe close up, which fortunately is often, Curtis has Williams going for him. She gives Monroe and the film emotional resonance and unexpected soul. She doesn’t look much like Monroe, but seems to have accessed her DNA. The brushstrokes she creates — whether Monroe is wooing the press or describing herself as happy while exuding tragedy — are terrific and produce a convincing, textured, spellbinding portrait.
The film also contains entertaining period tidbits, such as Olivier marketing his own line of cigarettes, which he privately deems “awful.”
Supporting players such as Judi Dench (playing a kindly Sybil Thorndike), Julia Ormond (playing Vivien Leigh) and Toby Jones (as a crude press agent), among others, make for an impressive talent roster but need something more interesting to do.
My Week with Marilyn ★★★
– Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench
– Written by: Adrian Hodges
– Directed by: Simon Curtis
– Rated: R
– Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes