In 1956, Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe worked together on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. It was a generally panned film in which both of the principal actors hoped to reinvent themselves and their careers: Olivier by boosting his increasingly declining relevance in a new glamorous world of film, and Monroe by establishing herself as a ‘great’ actress along the lines of her award-winning co-star. Third assistant director Colin Clark was there to chronicle the contention and drama on set and, at least according to his memoirs, develop a close relationship with the legendary Marilyn Monroe.
My Week with Marilyn is the cinematic result: with Michelle Williams as Monroe, Kenneth Branagh as Olivier and Eddie Redmayne as the spurious narrator Clark, it’s a film which relies solely on Clark’s diaries to tell an often unbelievable tale of the much-sought after star at the height of her vulnerability. Regardless of the truth of the memoirs – which I will touch on later – it’s an undeniably good story that was envisaged by its director Simon Curtis as a clash between ‘black and white England’ and the intoxicating allure of Hollywood. With wonderful lines such as ‘Trying to teach Marilyn to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger’ – courtesy of Branagh – the film successfully charts the contentious relationship between Monroe and Olivier, and I found the scenes depicting on-set drama and the challenges facing the cast to be immensely fascinating, especially those portraying the politics of filmmaking. And these scenes, refereed by Judi Dench’s charming Dame Sybil, were rooted in fact: he disliked her unreliability and pretentious style of Method acting, she hated his refusal to understand her viewpoint.
The first half-hour of My Week with Marilyn is too rushed and jaunty – and arguably underplays Clark’s considerable privilege– and fits ill with the seriousness that later characterises the film. Williams effectively mimics Monroe’s movements and voice, and the remainder of the actors are enjoyable enough, with Redmayne in particular channelling a wide-eyed, permanently eager attitude that works well. Emma Watson pops up now and then with an underused, basically pointless character, and a plethora of acclaimed English actors also appear throughout the film.
But it’s when the relationship between Monroe and Clark begins to blossom that things start deteriorating: without focusing too much on the fact that Clark’s account has never been corroborated (the endless possibilities for invention spring to mind), the fact that poor Marilyn isn’t here to protest the truthfulness of the tale is troubling. Another opportunity to exploit a much-victimised figure or perhaps an overgrown adoration for a celebrity just a bit too far out of reach? Either way, the story doesn’t quite ring true and, more importantly for the film at least, its romance is too predictable and full of cringe-inducing possibility to really work. As a film, it is distinctly enjoyable though, and intriguing in its representation of a drama-addled film set.
Image credit: My Week with Marilyn, 2011