My Week with Marilyn

February 25, 2012
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Before watching My Week with Marilyn I wasn’t aware that Colin Clark, the 23-year-old film flunkey whose memoir provides the basis of the story, was the son of Sir Kenneth Clark. Not only was Sir Kenneth a renowned art historian and cultural bureaucrat, he was the man who gave us Civilisation (1969) – the orginal 13-part TV mega-series, charting the history of western art and architecture.

Colin’s older brother was Alan Clark, who wrote a controversial book on the incompetence of the generals in World War I, called The Donkeys (1961). He became known as a minister in the Thatcher government, and ultimately as a diarist who told the world all about his adulterous sexual exploits.

One wonders if Colin showed an aptitude for his father’s intellectual pursuits, or his brother’s duplicity and randiness. The latter would be favourite, if My Week with Marilyn is any indication. Although Eddie Redmayne does a pretty good job of portraying Colin as a wide-eyed ingenue with a streak of rat cunning, the fact that so much of the story rests on the diaries of one callow young man can only raise suspicions.

Imagine being able to write about your intimate contact with a famous film star many years after she and most of the other people associated with that time have died. Wouldn’t it be tempting to spice it up a little? To add all those clever things you didn’t say at the time but thought up later? To reconstruct Marilyn’s personality and conversation in fictionalised form?

For this reason, one must treat the “true story” of Marilyn Monroe’s visit to London, to star in that irredeemable turkey, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), with a good deal of scepticism. At the end of the film we are told that Clark (1932-2002) went on to have a successful career in the film industry, but look him up on the International Movie Database (imd), and the cupboard is pretty bare. His memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, didn’t appear until 1995, almost forty years after the events described.

Having raised that rather large proviso, I can now say that Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn is a bright, engaging film with an excellent script and bravura performances from Michelle Williams as Marilyn, Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olvier, and Judy Dench as Dame Sibyl Thorndike. None of them bear much physical resemblance to the originals so it is a real test of their powers to recreate these larger-than-life figures largely through speech and mannerisms.

Nobody understands an actor better than another actor. One of the peculiarities of the profession is that even in their off-screen, off-stage lives, many of them still seem to be acting. It is a gift and a curse that ultimately blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality, until one’s original identity disappears.

Marilyn Monroe was an extreme example of this syndrome. She was beautful, charming and seductive, but also one of the neediest human beings ever to step before a movie camera. Michelle Williams is outstanding in the way she captures so many of these characteristics. One almost begins to forget that her figure is completely lacking her subject’s startling curves, while her face has a soft beauty, at odds with Marilyn’s brassy glamour.

Branagh portrays Olivier as a neurotic, self-regarding tyrant, quoting Shakespeare at will, making wry little jokes at his own expense. Judy Dench seems to relish playing Dame Sybil – a more congenial role than her last screen appearance as J. Edgar Hoover’s mother.

Even though the veracity of this account remains clouded, the portrait of Marilyn is a credible one. She plays the dumb blonde, but has a surprising intelligence that comes through in some of her off-the-cuff remarks. When Colin asks if she’d like to see the sights, she replies: “I am the sights.” She freaks out trying to inhabit her frivolous role via the Strasberg method, but achieves wondrous results whenever she can relax and be spontaneous.

Zoë Wanamaker plays a grim-faced Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s acting coach, who is called upon to supply huge dollops of reassurance to her insecure pupil. We see how this constant stream of professional sycophancy does more harm than good. While Marilyn is ready to crumble at every outburst from an exasperated Olivier, Paula’s praise slides right off the surface of her personal demons.

This, finally, is the paradox of Marilyn Monroe and the abiding strength of this film: the portrait of the most famous, most admired star of her age being eaten up by neuroses that she can’t control. Her only way of finding stability is to play a role, whether it be the alluring seductress; the sex goddess with a kind of animal casualness about her body; or the poor, vulnerable little girl who needs to be protected, while she hungers for one true love. Williams’s Marilyn is all of these characters. She encases her manipulative tendencies in a mask of glowing innocence. It’s a performance within a performance, guaranteed to charm a stripling like Colin, but no less effective on the rest of us.

 

UK/USA, Rated M, 99 minutes