By Jeffrey Overstreet
First of all, a slap on the casting team's wrist: Never cast Emma “Hermione” Watson in a movie unless you intend for her to be the focus of our attention. Watson has that mysterious movie-star something—a presence that overrides all others. When she first appeared onscreen in Simon Curtis’s film My Week with Marilyn, I could swear I heard the entire audience gasp in delighted surprise. Thus, when Watson turns out to be playing the girl who slips from the central character's attention, well...so much for our suspension of disbelief.
But yes, Michelle Williams illuminates the whole theater with her vivid impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. She's complicated, funny, sad, giddy, broken, childlike, and unpredictable. She'll likely get an Oscar nomination, even though her lead performance in a better 2011 movie—Meek's Cutoff—is the one that will stay with me.
So, there you go...I've delivered the opinion on what will matter to most moviegoers as they flood the theaters this holiday season to see the flashiest star turn of the year.
But for those few of you who want to know if the movie is actually thoughtful or well-made, I have a little more to say.
Alas, for all of its charm, its fashion-catalogue cinematography, and its familiar faces, My Week with Marilyn is a movie that asks big questions and then quickly dances around them in an eagerness to please rather than to challenge or explore.
Don't worry: In this story about an exploited young entertainer who turned to drugs for stability and who gave herself up to the rich and powerful men panting after her like dogs, you'll never once become uncomfortable.
I'm told that the film is based on the memoir by writer and documentarian Colin Clark, who apparently spent time with Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl during his short stint as a helper for Laurence Olivier.
Based on a true story? Fine. But, British as it is, the movie never feels like anything less than a Hollywood fantasy. Clark (Eddie Redmayne, who is good at playing naive, smitten, and utterly uninteresting) gives Monroe such fierce attention that we can’t help but follow his gaze...first to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), and then to Monroe. Clark becomes our tour guide from one exhibition of Monroe’s famous...um...traits to another.
The film cleverly distracts us from thinking much about Clark himself, and that’s a problem. We’re led to accept as a sympathetic guide a young man that parents should hope their children never become.
Clark is drawn to the film industry not because he has any apparent skills, but because he's enchanted by the razzle-dazzle of celebrity. And he gets a job not because of any apparent qualifications, but because he’s connected to money and privilege. The movie doesn't blink at this; in fact, it treats it as charming.
Thus, this audacious, superficial goof ends up following his hormones in pursuit of a woman who has been broken by that very kind of self-serving attention, and we’re meant to laugh and cheer him on in his determination to live out a fantasy.
We favor him because he lavishes poor Marilyn with unconditional worship, even though it can only serve to further distort her perception of the truth. We favor him because Monroe’s other worshippers are conveniently older, meaner, and less appealing.
At least he listens to her. At least he isn’t trying to manipulate her. But the film doesn’t dare disrupt our enjoyment by asking if it’s wise to rush headlong into a passionate flirtation with a woman of such dangerous emotional damage. When Clark does start to suffer for his hormone-driven decisions, the movie sighs wistfully as if this is just the unfortunate price of following one’s heart.
Alas, the film cannot decide whether to celebrate Monroe's status as an American idol, or to reveal a young woman imprisoned in a life of unfair expectations and sexual objectification. Out of one side of the film's mouth, we hear, "Oh, isn’t it a shame, what celebrity culture did to this girl?" and out of the other side we hear (more persuasively), "Good God, look at her! She's a goddess!"
This conflict of interest prevents the film from taking seriously what strikes me as its most interesting questions: What is the difference between acting for the stage and acting for the screen? Is great movie acting just about being attractive? Olivier is portrayed as being exasperated by Monroe's lack of basic acting skills, and yet he's entranced by the image of her on a screen. Does this mean she's a great actress? Or just a particularly radiant sex object? I wish the film had explored this more.
I came to this film more interested in seeing Branagh's Olivier than Williams's Monroe. When Branagh first reached the big screen with his extraordinary Henry V, he was hailed as "the new Olivier." That was ultimately as much a curse to Branagh’s career as being called “the new Spielberg” was to M. Night Shyamalan, creating impossible expectations.
Here, he strikes a delicate balance between nuanced realism and flamboyant spoof—which is a perfect way to describe Olivier being himself.
There are plenty of other Masterpiece Theatre-worthy performances in this Who's-Who of British entertainment: Judi Dench, Toby Jones, Peter Wight, Michael Kitchen (who looks like he’s still playing Inspector Foyle), Zoë Wanamaker, and Philip Jackson. Just when I started thinking "Where’s Derek Jacobi?"—shazam, there he was.
When great actors are having a good time, they can make even the most disposable scripts worth tolerating. (The Harry Potter series is perfect proof.) I enjoyed this cast’s company so much that I’m tempted to forgive the whole conflicted affair.
But in the end, I'm inclined to turn the thumb downward. For it feels to me like the movie leans in the direction of exalting our idols. As false as pop culture’s manufactured Marilyn character might be, the filmmakers seem more enamored of the airbrushed legend than the broken human being who reluctantly played the part and paid the price.
The proper response to such a film is a scowl, at best—not a swooning sigh.