Is there any more thankless task for an actor than to play a famous performer from the past? Especially one as clearly defined in the audience's mind as Marilyn Monroe? You not only have to live up to the legend, but dig underneath the surface to find the soul of a person whom the public knew only by her carefully crafted public persona and the pages of the gossip magazines that made a fortune off of her image. Concentrate on looking and sounding the part and you're accused of simple mimicry, but if you ignore that aspect of the job then nobody will take your performance seriously. Michelle Williams, who at 31 can lay claim to being the most-fearless American actress of her generation, wades into this minefield and emerges not only unscathed, but with one of the finest performances of her already outstanding career.
Based on a memoir by Colin Clark (played in the movie by Eddie Redmayne), My Week With Marilyn details the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, a light comedy starring and directed by Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who casts Monroe in the part originally played on-stage by his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond in a small but memorable role). Clark wants to break into the movie business, and with a healthy reserve of pluck -- as well as connections thanks to his well-off father -- he lands a job in Olivier's production company, eventually becoming the third assistant director on the film.
When the emotionally stunted Monroe arrives, she comes with an agent, various handlers, and her husband Arthur Miller (an unrecognizable Dougray Scott), as well as her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). Monroe's commitment to method acting infuriates Olivier -- she's forever late to the set and won't simply "be sexy" like he wants her to be. Soon, the eager-to-please Clark becomes the only person on the production Monroe trusts, and as problems begin to surface in her marriage, he finds it harder to resist the temptation to sleep with the international sex symbol.
As a coming-of-age tale set in the world of big-time entertainment, My Week With Marilyn is covering rather familiar ground -- comparisons to Richard Linklater's Me & Orson Welles spring readily to mind -- but its uniformly superb performances set the film apart. Williams communicates both Monroe's gifted acting skills (she's a natural whom Strasberg nurtures through her crippling self-doubt) as well as her emotional instability. And that's not even mentioning her drop-dead sex appeal. Even when the movie drifts into the overly familiar areas of her life, Williams makes the actress immediate and multifaceted; her Monroe isn't a legend, but a sad, lost little girl.
Williams has a number of fantastic scenes with Branagh, who masters Olivier's distinctly theatrical speaking patterns. We learn at the end of the movie that, after this experience, he would star in The Entertainer, and it's fun to watch Branagh play Olivier's growing realization that he's aging. He's no longer the young lion of British acting, but slowly becoming an elder statesman who not only can't seduce his leading lady, but can't even act as well as she does. For his part, Redmayne holds his own with what is by nature the least-interesting character in the movie: the good boy who sees the dark side of himself and others, and comes out of it wiser.
With a hero so resolutely decent, so able to act with propriety, My Week With Marilyn is practically a love letter to British reserve; it's an elegant, amusing, and heartwarming rejoinder to the axiom that we only regret the things we don't do. But the film is never dull, thanks to the brilliant acting, the screenplay's many pungent one-liners, and the sneaking suspicion that we're actually seeing a legend turned into a flesh-and-blood person. My Week With Marilyn allows us to stop hero-worshiping and start appreciating one of the iconic figures of film history, and that's no small accomplishment.