My Week with Marilyn takes on a deceptively casual “moment in history” premise involving Marilyn Monroe’s brief time spent in London in 1956, working on a frothy “light comedy” directed by and starring Laurence Olivier (nicely delivered here by Kenneth Branagh, the right man for the job), seeking an escapist break from the stage. The critical subplot involves a young third assistant director Colin Clark (the aptly gawky but bright Eddie Redmayne), whom Monroe took on as a temporary friend, confidant, and almost-lover while on set. Clark later wrote a book about his experience and has now gone citywide, so to speak, on the big screen.
Looked at from a wider angle, though, British director Simon Curtis’s saga is a more complicated beast, a film within a film shoot within the larger-than-life screen star’s biography and the humble young man in the margins who was there to soak up the affections of a deeply wondrous, beautiful, and troubled movie legend.
This would be little more than a period-piece lark, a rather mediocre and sentimentally smug outing of a film, were it not for the intensely glowing and vulnerable life force at the movie’s center. Whether or not Michelle Williams somehow magically “captures” the essence of Marilyn Monroe (who really knows?), Williams works up a powerful charisma that is clearly the prime reason to catch this film. With her quixotic mixture of girlish innocence, longing for said innocence, self-destructive melancholy, virtuosic tease instincts, and intellect in hiding, Williams’s Marilyn is a stunning feat of naturalistic acting, reminiscent of Marion Cotillard’s inhabiting of Édith Piaf in La vie en rose.
Clark’s tale isn’t exactly a garden-variety kiss-and-tell or a proud recounting of his brush with greatness, but rather an intimate window of time in the history of the movies. We know about the less-than-happy ending to come several years later, but this slice of Marilyn’s life is a relative calm before and amid the storms, of both the internal and external sort.