Norma Jean Agonistes

My Week with Marilyn: adapted by Adrian Hodges from writings by Colin Clark; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndyke) and Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh) (2011): The major attraction of this enjoyable little film is the portrayal of Marilyn Monroe by Michelle Williams. Williams doesn’t really look like Monroe, even made up to do so, but she absolutely nails the film’s portrait of the troubled actress, helping to make her a fascinating character first and an actual real person being portrayed on film second.

The rest of the film — ostensibly based on the experiences of 23-year-old 3rd-assistant-director Colin Clark while making The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood Studios in 1956 — is a bit of a self-congratulatory piffle, especially in the second half. Colin Clark turns out to be the only person in the world who understands Marilyn, and they have a week-long platonic romance during the shooting of the film (directed by and starring Laurence Olivier). Did they really? Well, all the people who could have confirmed Clark’s version of things were dead by the time he published his first account of these events, so make of that what you will.

Technically, this is a mainstream version of science-fiction fandom’s Mary Sue plot device, in which a character based on the writer saves everybody in a piece of fan fiction set (originally) in the Star Trek universe. Oh, go look it up.

But regardless of how ‘true’ the movie is, the only real problems with this particular Mary Sue plot lie in the opacity and superior smugness of Colin Clark. As he’s in every scene, Clark’s nobly disingenuous upper-class savoir-faire gets a bit wearing after awhile, especially when the movie switches from the light comedy of its first half to an exploration of Marilyn’s problems with her handlers, publicity, acting, Olivier, Arthur Miller, drugs, alcohol, family history, and assorted other things in the second half.

Everyone in the world except Colin Clark is against her! Imagine that, in a movie based on autobiographical material by Colin Clark…except that Clark’s real-life observations about Monroe were much less flattering, though much of the film’s story still comes from the book versions of Clark’s diaries. Two books, in fact. Because Marilyn Monroe can make people money.

Among the other players, Kenneth Branagh is delightful as Laurence Olivier (whom he resembles not in the slightest), as are Julia Ormond as Olivier’s then-wife Vivien Leigh and Judi Dench as British acting legend Sybil Thorndike (Dench, who first met the late Thorndike in 1958, observed that My Week with Marilyn gets Thorndike’s kindness to younger actors pretty much spot on). In the small sub-genre of Movies Like This, My Week with Marilyn is inferior to My Favourite Year and Me and Orson Welles, but still enjoyable. Recommended.

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