Tuesday, October 11, 2011
My Week with Marilyn - Chicago International Film Festival
My Week with Marilyn is a crowd-pleaser if there ever was one. Combining lush production values with a story about two of the 20th century's most famous movie stars, this is an entertaining film that will appeal to a wide audience. I think it's a well made, well-intentioned film to be sure, but one that looks better than it actually plays.
Like last year's Oscar-winning The King's Speech, this film is about a little-known incident involving famous people in Britain. It's based on two books by Colin Clark, who wrote a diary during his time on the production of the 1956 film The Prince and the Showgirl. Laurence Olivier starred and directed that film and fought to have Marilyn Monroe as his co-star. At that juncture, Monroe was at the height of her popularity both for her incredible sexiness as well as her success at the box office.
At that time, Monroe had just married husband number 3, the famed playwright Arthur Miller. He accompanies Marilyn after being cleared of charges that he was a Communist; that allowed him to leave the United States and be there for Marilyn during the filming of her new movie.
However all is not well once production begins. Monroe has her acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) to help her find her character, as she puts it in the film. This slows things down and Olivier is adamant that Monroe only needs to act, as the "character is on the page." Combine that with her too-often practice of showing up late to the set and Olivier runs out of patience quite soon.
Enter Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 23-year old from wealth who persevered in his battle to get hired by Laurence Olivier's production company. Clark wanted to show his parents that he could get by on his own and decided to enter the film world (he is shown in his youth early on in the film attending the cinema as a young boy). His job on the production of Prince and the Showgirl isn't much really - only a third assistant director, which was basically a go-fer on the set, but for him, it's an opportunity to work with movie stars.
As Olivier becomes more frustrated with Monroe's lack of professionalism, she becomes more withdrawn and begins to drink and take pills. Her husband can't take her behavior - "she's devouring me"- he tells Olivier and he leaves England to head back home to America to see his children. This only makes Monroe more insecure as well as lonely, so she finally turns to Clark for comfort. She is 30 at this time and Clark is a younger man in a world filled with older men who want to use Marilyn for their purposes.
The friendship that Monroe and Clark is the foundation of this movie. Clark has been dating a young woman from the wardrobe department, but once Marilyn turns to him, he can think of nothing else but this sizzling movie star. One day, they leave the set and the house she is staying at and go for a journey on their own. They do any number of things, from touring Windsor Castle to seeing the campus at Eton to taking a skinny dip in a stream in the woods. This sequence starts out nicely and it certainly is pretty to look at, but by the end, it's just there as a diversion, almost like a travel commercial.
What carries this film are two marvelous performances, that of Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier. It must be a terribly daunting task for any actress to portray the movie's most famous sex goddess who was also a terribly shy and introverted young woman. Williams of course has the looks to take on this role, but she also has the energy and charm to pull of this assignment as well. It is said in the film that when she was right, "you couldn't take your eyes off her." The same can be said of Williams' performance- she's simply wonderful.
While Williams will naturally receive most of the attention for this film, Kenneth Branagh deserves just as much credit. He absolutely has all of Olivier's speech patterns and nervous tics down, but his performance is much more than mimicry. He wonderfully and very subtly captures the great actor's range of emotions toward Monroe, from anger and frustration with her work habits to wonder and envy for her performance on screen. I didn't even recognize Branagh in this role - he simply disappears into the character of Olivier.
High marks also to cinematographer Ben Smithard for his lovely, deeply saturated cinematography, in which he clearly tried to replicate the look of Technicolor in the 1950s (he has succeeded extremely well); he is especially good with the lighting of Williams' face, as he captures the glow of Monroe's aura.
So while this is a pleasing, watchable film, my complaint is that this was made with a big audience as well as multiple Oscar nominations in mind. The film is just a bit too pretty and round, especially with the direction of Simon Curtis who definitely plays it safe. Much of the film is all about recreating scenes from actual life and while that was also the basis of The King's Speech, for me that film had much more of a sense of humor as well as heart.
Maybe the creators of My Week with Marilyn knew they had a winning formula, so they stayed on the straight and narrow. Yes, I like the film, but I wish it had taken a few more detours along the way.
My Week with Marilyn will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on Wednesday, October 12 at 8:00 PM. It opens nationally on Friday, November 4.