Tuesday, 13 December 2011

'My Week With Marilyn' review:

It begins with a sizzle: Michelle Williams is introduced as Marilyn Monroe during a sultry song and dance routine, watched by our besotted, film-obsessed protagonist Colin (Eddie Redmayne) on a cinema screen, in the company of a dozen or so other lecherous men. It's no exaggeration to say Williams makes love to the camera and the sensitive, indie movie actress convinces totally, becoming the hyper-sexual 1950s bombshell before our eyes. Here Colin's leering does something to suggest not only the appeal of Monroe, the movie star, but also the terms upon which she was judged and the slightly sinister way in which audiences implicitly came to own her. Sadly Simon Curtis' movie goes rapidly, dramatically downhill from there.

'My Week With Marilyn' feels like an overwrought Biography Channel drama operating on an unusually high production budget. The presence of Williams - not to mention Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Derek Jacobi, Emma Watson and Dougray Scott - is all there is to remind us that this is in fact a piece of Weinstein-produced Oscar bait and not a straight-to-DVD knock-off. The film follows Monroe during the time she spent in England in the summer of 1956, starring opposite Sir Lawrence Olivier (Branagh) in light comedy romp 'The Prince and the Showgirl' - the production of which was apparently run like a Gulag under the stage legend's Stalin-like gaze and (in one bewilderingly pointless scene) the tyranny of a unionised workforce.

Based on the memoirs of the young Colin Clark, the fraught production's lowly third assistant director, the film sees Redmayne's Colin very much as the centre of attention: instantly loved by Monroe and soon indispensable to Olivier. A key mediator in the ensuing war between the two actors, he's the reason the film is completed. It is even implied he prevented the troubled, pill-guzzling sex symbol from committing suicide - six years before her eventual overdose. By the end of this alternately zany and maudlin adventure he's improbably become trusted confident and bestest friend in the world to both stars. Along the way he also finds time to casually reject the affections of Emma Watson's doe-eyed wardrobe assistant and becomes accustomed to receiving knitwear from an appreciative Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dench), for some apparent off-screen kindness that's best left unimagined.

The film is so obsessed with our old Etonian everyman hero Colin that the more interesting figures who surround him are only painted as wafer thin archetypes. Olivier, who Branagh parodies with 'Wild Wild West' levels of restraint, is glimpsed several times in dramatic, slow-zooming close-up reciting Shakespearian verse - just like Olivier must have frequently done in real life. You know... because he was famous for doing Shakespeare.

Meanwhile Williams is a more troubling proposition as Monroe, playing her emotionally withdrawn moments as though she were a fay, mentally deficient cousin of Mickey Mouse. She may have been troubled, depressed and paranoid but Marilyn Monroe was, by most accounts, a very witty woman and not likely a ditzy airhead. Yet here Monroe is shown as barely able to recall who Leonardo Da Vinci is, let alone correctly identify his picture of "the smiling woman". Fair enough if you're going to be casual with historical figures, but this doesn't make sense within the context of a movie in which an early press conference scene has Monroe wowing British journos with her quick-witted charms and clever turn of phrase.

In isolated moments Williams nails the quiet vulnerability of the character, just as she turns the vivacious sexpot persona on and off, yet these feel like separate extreme caricatures rather than parts of a fully formed, if conflicted, whole. As with 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' or Andy Kaufman biopic 'Man on the Moon', 'My Week With Marilyn' is content to paint a reductive (and only superficially deep) picture of its complicated subject. Yet the performances, though campy turns rather than real human beings, are at least watchable. What really kills the film is Adrian Hodges' literal-minded screenplay.

A good 'My Week With Marilyn' drinking came would involve taking a shot 1) whenever someone tells you exactly what they're thinking or feeling; 2) whenever a character explains who somebody is or reminds you what has just happened; or 3) when something is said to underline a point already made through the characters' on-screen actions. The writing is needlessly descriptive, always telling rather than showing (or showing and then telling just in case). Dialogue often sounds like scene-setting narration rather than speech, whilst Olivier and Monroe routinely self-analyse in embarrassing cod psychology.

In 'My Week With Marilyn', the film star's life is presented as one long tragedy, hidden from public view behind moments of immense, if superficial, glamour. This, it turns out, is a very effective metaphor for the film itself, which only attains any sort of life when Williams is called upon to perform as a woman giving a performance.

'My Week With Marilyn' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

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