Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: My Week with Marilyn


In the summer of 1956 Marilyn Monroe travelled to London to star alongside Lawrence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl. She was hoping to gain some cred as a serious actress, whilst he (or at least the version of him that exists in this film) wanted to recapture his youth. And how better to do that than act opposite the world's most desirable actress?

Marilyn with her then-husband Arthur Miller

Colin Clark, a twenty-three year old at the time, shares in his biographical account that he spent time alone with the famous movie star during this period. As third assistant to the director, Clark struck up a friendship with Marilyn that left enough of an impression on him that he was compelled to write about it many years later in his memoirs, upon which this screenplay is based. Since then there have been some allegations that his recollections were fabricated (or at least inconsistent with records of Marilyn's whereabouts during this window of time), but real or not, the story of an everyman hanging out with the world's most famous movie-star is a concept ripe for adaptation. 

Marilyn and her acting coach Paula Strasberg

It's really quite a simple bio-pic, chronicling the behind-the-scenes drama of the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, as well as portraying snippets of the movie itself and Colin Clark's budding friendship with Marilyn. The woman was notoriously difficult to work with on-set, keeping her co-stars waiting for hours while she prepared and frustrating Olivier with her attempts to get inside her character's head even though the role itself was feather-light. The stress gets to her, and it's only when she reaches out to Clark as a confidante that things begin to get back on track – though this comes at a heavy personal cost to Clark.

Worth noting is that the plot and pacing is incredibly gentle. I lent the DVD to my parents after I was finished and according to my sister, mum fell asleep and dad was heard to declare: “that was the most boring movie I’ve ever seen.” There is no real story to speak of, it’s simply a character study of Marilyn in the years before her untimely death. She would die six years after the events of this film, and it’s clear that the cracks in her psyche are already beginning to appear. She’s constantly taking pills to help her sleep, her marriage to Arthur Miller is on the rocks, Olivier’s impatience with her makes her skittish which in turn affects her performance, and she veers drastically between the little-girl-lost act and the famous sex kitten. Somewhere between the two is a very confused woman, but it’s this enigmatic nature that makes her so captivating to those around her.

This image pretty much sums up the entire movie: Marilyn is the centre of attention, and Colin is a mix of bodyguard and entourage.

As Colin Clarke (in a role that can only be called Supporting Protagonist), Eddie Remayne does his best with a wafer-thin character, but let's face it - it's a role that requires little beyond looking dazed and awestruck, and he simply exists as an audience surrogate for viewers to experience the Marilyn Effect. Most of the time he just stares at the actress in awe, and as early as the first three seconds of the film, in which his voice-over narration is discussing his background, you're already thinking: "who cares? Get to Marilyn!"

And it is Michelle William's performance as Marilyn that naturally provides the film its purpose, a challenge that she tackles with remarkable self-possession. Who would have thought that the girl from Dawson's Creek had this in her? In her hands, it's easy to see why the world was so fascinated by the woman she plays, and Williams captures Marilyn's breathy speech patterns, fragile beauty, effortless sensuality and mysterious nature with eerie accuracy. While watching, you begin to wonder: it is Marilyn's personality or the mystique surrounding her that enchants everyone? Is she really as vulnerable and helpless as she seems? Or does she know exactly what she's doing when she makes the rest of the cast wait hours for her? What is hurting her more, her army of sycophants or those who get fed up and voice their impatience with her? Who really has the woman's true measure? Perhaps the most intriguing part of the film is that we never really get inside Marilyn’s head – we only see her from the point-of-view of others, and each character has a different perspective on who she really is.

Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh

The sheer number of familiar faces floating in and out of the story gets hilarious after a while. Among the main cast is Kenneth Branagh (Lawrence Olivier), Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndike), Dougray Scott (Arthur Miller), Dominic Cooper (Milton Greene), Zoe Wanamaker (Paula Strasberg) and Toby Jones (Arthur Jacobs). Even Derek Jacobi pops in for a brief cameo.

But then there are the minor characters, and you get so used to jumping in your seat and saying: “hey, it’s that guy!” that it’s almost as if they’re doing it on purpose. The secretary is Isolde from Merlin. The chauffeur is Inspector Japp from Poirot. The proprietor of the motel is Carson from Downton Abbey. Clark’s mother is Lily Potter. His first employer is Christopher Foyle from Foyle’s War. Oh, and his love interest is Hermione.

Not Hermione. But I bet you won't remember the character's real name.

Emma Watson is oddly underused here, especially as the critics made a big deal of this being her first post-Harry Potter role. There’s not really much to say about it save that she’s probably the most reasonable and self-assured Woman Scorned in history. After Clark ditches her to run like a hapless puppy after Marilyn, only to go crawling back to her by the end, she asks him whether his heart was broken. He answers in the affirmative, and she simply says: “good, I think it needed to be broken.” Classy gal.

It's a strange movie in many ways, simply because there can be no real resolution. It's not a bio-pic so much as a snapshot of a time and place; a young man's chance encounter with a superstar that (hopefully) didn't define his life, but certainly made for an unforgettable week.

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