The vast majority of film characters who are addicted to pills and alcohol should not be the main characters in movie scripts. These characters are frequently one dimensional and are only required to slur words, stumble over steps, and make a nuisance of themselves. There are exceptions (Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas) as there are to any rule of thumb, but usually one does not want to rest a movie on a pill-head’s shoulders.
My Week with Marilyn does not rely on Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) as the central character, but she is not just a supporting role either. The star of the movie with ‘Marilyn’ in the title is actually Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the young third assistant director on Sir Laurence Olivier’s production of The Prince and the Showgirl. Through amusing perseverance, Colin has wormed his way into his first real job and onto his first real movie set. He fetches coffee, shuffles script copies, and routinely asks the talent what he can do to make them more comfortable.
The script chose to follow Colin’s one week on the set with Marilyn Monroe and their brief flirtation/affair which itself is memorialized in his autobiography devoted to that week. However, through a few factors which may not be apparent from the script’s pages, neither Colin nor Marilyn is the most interesting character in the movie. This credit belongs solely to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). It is 1956 and Olivier confides to Colin that he no longer feels young and decided to cast Marilyn in his film to recapture some of his lost youth and maybe even engage in his own affair with her.
Olivier and Branagh have a lot in common. They are Shakespeare addicts, are widely acknowledged to be seminal actors in their respective generations, and I like to think that if their births were reversed, it would be Olivier playing Branagh in a film. Branagh gives a truly convincing performance as an aging Olivier who begins amused with Marilyn’s quirks before settling with disgust at her pathetic work ethic and ridiculous attempt to define herself as a true acting talent.
On set, Marilyn was never on time, held up the rest of the cast for hours, was spoon fed her lines and delivery method from her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and sometimes stayed in bed for an entire day because of her pill and alcohol problems. The film blames these problems both on Paula and Marilyn’s agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper) as her sycophantic pill-pushers. Colin brushes aside his own worries about Marilyn’s physical and mental health because he has severe love blinders on. When a person is so smitten and in lust as Colin is, the object of their desire can do no wrong.
Aside from Michelle Williams, the supporting cast is quite strong. Co-starring with Marilyn is Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) who appears just as smitten as Colin sometimes and Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) gives a brief but telling performance. Dominic Cooper plays a standard high-tension agent protective of his star and makes me question why he still shows up in such minor roles after his fantastic turn as Uday Hussein in this year’s The Devil’s Double.
Most of the critical response to My Week with Marilyn focuses on Michelle Williams and fawns about her most certain Oscar nomination. I disagree. Williams looks nothing like Monroe and I was painfully aware of the fake blonde wig and fake teeth. For most of the movie, and especially in the first half, I was watching Michelle Williams play Marilyn Monroe instead of forgetting that and just watching Marilyn. Director Simon Curtis made a mistake in casting a well known actress to play Marilyn; he would have been much better off casting an unknown actress which would have decreased the inevitable distraction.
I encourage you to take the time to see My Week with Marilyn for the critically overlooked Branagh performance as Olivier and an overall enjoyable movie. Try and look past the Williams performance and enjoy a 1950’s English period piece.