If you liked "Me and Orson Welles," consider yourself the target audience for "My Week with Marilyn," a mostly frothy glassful of awards-season nog.
I'll confess up front that "My Week with Marilyn" -- derived from Colin Clark's diaries of sharing time with Marilyn Monroe -- inhabits guilty-pleasure territory for lovers of Old Hollywood. Amid the film's showmanship, though, director Simon Curtis proves capable of some subtle points. Plus, he has four aces in the hole: Michelle Williams as Marilyn, Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, Tony Award winner Eddie Redmayne as Clark, and Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike.
In 1956, Clark actually spent a summer in Marilyn's orbit, in his capacity as third assistant director on the 1957 comedic film "The Prince and the Showgirl," directed by Olivier. But the week in question refers to Clark's brief, rather chaste fling with Monroe, which the screen Clark describes, in words lifted from his kiss-and-tell memoir, as "a few days in my life when a dream came true and my only talent was not to close my eyes." Curtis' film lovingly dramatizes those golden moments, but also serves as a backstage farce about Olivier's war with his leading lady.
In many ways, "My Week with Marilyn" is tough to defend. It surely exaggerates Clark's access, making him fly-on-the-wall privy even to private squabbles between Monroe and her famous husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and Olivier and his famous wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond). Screenwriter Adrian Hodges also tells when he could show and needlessly pulls some punches, filing some of the edges off of Monroe and even, in the end, the prickly Olivier (who reportedly took his grudge against Marilyn all the way to the grave).
But Curtis' film is also a certifiable hoot and capable of scoring genuine emotional points. Williams gives a brilliant performance (more on that anon) and Branagh a technically impressive, highly amusing one, while the period recreation of a tightly budgeted British film production charms (not least in Dench's endearing turn as the generous Dame Sybil). The notion of a star living on the pill-popping edge resonates with the headline-making case regarding the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson and, inevitably, the untimely death of Heath Ledger, the father of Williams' child.
In one of the film's best scenes, Clark asks Marilyn why she doesn't walk away from her career, since it seems to make her miserable. "You could be happy," he insists.
"I am happy," she replies, all evidence to the contrary. But it's an accurate paradox, one of the many contradictions of the artist "unfortunate" enough to become a star. Much of the story's tension comes from Marilyn's sincere desire to master the "Method," represented by her personal on-set acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). The old-school Olivier fumes while Marilyn struggles to motivate a cardboard comic character.
Williams is better than the picture, but within the screenplay's constraints, she nails every possible nuance of physical and emotional expression. It's dazzling work, and reason alone to spend 99 minutes "with Marilyn."