The “me” in the “my” in “My Week with Marilyn” is Colin Clark (played by Eddie Redmayne), who turns his back on his upper-crust background — his father is legendary historian Kenneth Clark — to take a grunt job with Laurence Olivier’s production company.
Unfortunately, young Clark winds up being the least-interesting facet of the movie, leaving the audience to forlornly watch more potentially fascinating plot elements drift away in favor of observing a young man swoon over an untenable object of desire.
That the object of desire is Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) helps matters greatly, but not enough to make “My Week with Marilyn” particularly compelling.
Soon after marrying playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe traveled to England to star opposite Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in the film version of “The Prince and the Showgirl.”
Olivier played the prince onstage opposite his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), but since she was considered too old for the movie, Olivier replaces her with Monroe, who shows up on the set with acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), despite Olivier’s well-known disregard for the Actors Studio and its championing of the Method.
The notoriously needy and difficult Monroe takes a shine to Colin, and he becomes the Marilyn Whisperer, coaxing her to the set when she’s too afraid to leave her dressing room. As the shoot drags on — and Miller (Dougray Scott) returns to America after an upset Monroe finds his preliminary notes for “After the Fall” — Colin and Marilyn spend days together touring the countryside, visiting Eton, and (platonically) enjoying each other’s company.
Eventually, Marilyn departs, leaving a bewitched and besotted Colin in her wake. And that’s about it.
There are any number of more interesting movies that could have been made with this material. One about Olivier and Monroe’s working relationship, perhaps, with the King of the Old Vic meeting the Queen of Hollywood, each unable to speak the other’s language, and each in awe of the other’s gifts as a performer. Or perhaps a film about Monroe and Miller — why they got together and how it all fell apart.
Heck, even a movie about the unlikely friendship between Monroe and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), an old-school star of the stage who is portrayed here as being kind and nurturing to the frightened American actress in so far over her depth.
But no, we get a movie about Marilyn and Colin instead, and he’s a crashing bore, whether he’s mooning after Monroe or trying to make time with the film’s young wardrobe mistress (Emma Watson, making her way in a post-“Harry Potter” universe).
If there’s one purpose that “My Week with Marilyn” serves, it’s as a jewel box to display the performances by Williams, Branagh, Ormond and Dench. The latter two get just a few scenes, but they’re riveting to watch; even though they’re playing real people, they never dip into caricature but instead capture these familiar faces and voices in a way that feels thoroughly organic.
And that’s exactly what Williams and Branagh do — Marilyn Monroe is one of the most iconic screen presences of all time, and attempting to squeeze into her shoes is no mean feat. Williams comes right out of the gate singing one of Monroe’s numbers from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and she owns the role from that moment on.
It’s not like watching an impressionist or a drag queen; Williams just gets this part down to the core, and after a while, you forget that you’re not watching Monroe herself.
Matching her all the way is Branagh — who was, of course, branded “the new Olivier” because of his successes as a young actor-director tackling Shakespearean epics. Branagh gets Olivier’s imperious hiss down to a T, and even manages to keep his upper lip literally stiff in exactly the same way as his predecessor. Olivier may be somewhat less familiar to American audiences than Monroe, but Branagh’s recreation of him is no less astounding than his co-star’s.
Redmayne has done extraordinary work on both stage and screen, but here he’s stuck playing, essentially, Nick Caraway if he hadn’t had F. Scott Fitzgerald to write him. Colin merely acts as our eyes and ears in this rarefied world, but he’s not interesting and he doesn’t ever register as his own person.
Director Simon Curtis, known mostly for British TV, shoots the moviemaking sequences with a historian’s love, but his dappled images of the countryside border on postcard cliché. He’s definitely smart about working with actors, whether he helped elicit these performances or wisely stayed out of the way.
Like a musical that you leave humming songs from other musicals, “My Week with Marilyn” will make you want to watch “The Prince and the Showgirl” or “Some Like It Hot” or any number of other triumphs starring the real Monroe. Williams and Branagh aside, however, “My Week” doesn’t linger much in the memory after a day or two.