Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Caitlin's Review of My Week with Marilyn

My 99 Minutes with Michelle Williams
by Caitlin Murphy

For people who love movies, it doesn’t get much better than movies about making movies; they feel like double dipping.  And this has been a good year for just that, with critically-lauded films like The Artist and Hugo tipping their hats to the medium through the medium.

My Week with Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis, centres around the filming of Sir Laurence Olivier’s The Sleeping Prince, eventually re-titled The Prince and the Showgirl, to highlight Olivier’s electric co-star, Marilyn Monroe.  Based on the memoir of Colin Clark, adapted by Adrian Hodge, My Week with Marilyn recounts the author’s real life experience as a lowly third assistant on the 1957 film, and how he remarkably wound up in Monroe’s inner circle, acting as her confidant and crutch.

Other than the true cause of her death, the debate that’s always swirled around Marilyn Monroe is how aware of herself she actually was; that is, how knowingly she crafted and performed a persona.  Was she truly a deer caught in the headlights, or simply the seductive impression of one?  Her early death only fuelled the mystery.  At one point in the film, surrounded by fans, Monroe turns to Colin and asks “should I be her?” before sashaying through the predictable poses to please the crowd, and suggesting that she was quite aware of her own duality.  Another fascination with Marilyn has always been how someone so beloved by the entire world could have felt so unloved and unloveable herself, perhaps all the more proof that she did feel like two, and was all too painfully knowing indeed.

What the film reminded me of most is that what we ask of actors is rare and precious.  Basically, that they be available.  But strikingly so.  Available to the moment, to the camera, to each other.  It sounds simple, but it’s something that the rest of us seek actively not to be much of the time, let alone allow strangers to capture on film.  Despite what we think of actors – their intelligence, their integrity, their predilections – when they are truly magical, it is not without major sacrifice.  In many ways, Marilyn Monroe’s curse was that she was preternaturally available, which too easily invites sexual overtones, but doesn’t necessarily deserve them.

For instance, at a few points in the film, Monroe is out in public, recognized and quickly swarmed.  Each time, she seems genuinely moved at first, surprised by the fawning and outpouring of affection.  Without fail though, of course, the scene abruptly turns ugly, potentially violent, and she must escape.  Though she encounters the same scene repeatedly, Marilyn seems never to really predict its dark turn, behaviour that is clearly naïve, without much instinct for self-preservation, but also trusting, hopeful and hyper-present: available to the moment, whatever the coming costs. 

Faced with the supremely daunting task of embodying a screen legend and sex symbol, Michelle Williams is quite miraculous.  Through costume and make-up, she indeed bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn, but it’s her own open, luminous presence that makes her so delightful to watch and easy to love.  In a lesser actor’s hands (I’ve read that Scarlet Johannson was originally sought – thank god, no), Marilyn could have so quickly fallen into caricature or mere impersonation.  I have been only vaguely following Williams’ career, (and thankfully never saw Dawson’s Creek, so don’t have that baggage), but I think she’s sublime.  The only false note in her performance, and not really through any fault of her own:  her hips appeared padded to achieve Marilyn’s famous curvaceous figure, and sometimes, notably when she danced, this looked odd.

The Prince and the Showgirl isn’t a very notable film, but its filming makes for pretty compelling story-telling in that it underlined the differences between Britain and the U.S., and, perhaps correspondingly, between theatre and film.  Olivier had great disdain for ‘the method’, the acting technique eagerly embraced across the pond, resenting its perceived rejection of technique, tradition and discipline.  He sees the method as indulgent, a pose, but Olivier is of course guilty of his own posturing –  quoting Shakespeare, slathering on make-up – and what becomes clear is that any approach has its own pretentions. 

The film’s strength is in the balance it strikes, largely thanks to the multi-dimensional characters achieved by its leads.  You completely understand Olivier’s impatience with Monroe’s behaviour – showing up late, or not at all, blowing her lines, clinging to her coach –  but you also can’t help but feel sorry for her.  Her antics would indeed be run-of-the-mill diva stuff if she weren’t so desperately afraid, painfully out of place, both coached and confused by the efforts of her handlers.  For his part, Olivier can’t reconcile his own frustratingly mixed feelings about Marilyn – in the end, he simply can’t deny how irresistibly charming she is, but he could never accept that to capture one side of her, he had to contend with the other.  What emerges most compellingly from Monroe’s experience as exotic outsider on the film is a very human reality:  we have trouble forgiving people for not seeing themselves as we see them.  Beyond this, we feel betrayed.

The casting of Kenneth Branagh as Olivier is of course very fitting and resonant, as the two Shakespearean director/actors led quite parallel careers.  And though Branagh certainly delivers in the role, he doesn’t dazzle (which he perhaps thought best).  The character of Colin Clark is a foil, an excuse to showcase Marilyn, so one might forgive Eddie Redmayne’s rather dull turn, but for me his lack of substance and specificity went beyond this, and he could have brought a spicier dip to the party.  Other well-known figures who show up include playwright, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott),  drama teacher, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and actress Vivien Leigh (a very moving performance by Julia Ormond).

Despite Williams’ brilliant performance, My Week with Marilyn doesn’t wholly work.  Some relationships needed either deepening or ditching in the script:  the strained marriage of Olivier and Leigh, for instance, leapt for a few moments of high-drama that it never quite got the right footing for.  Leigh, deemed too old by her husband to reprise the role on film that she played on stage, and was thus replaced by Marilyn, held a deep, tragic tale that could have unfolded further – such a choice would have steered the film into some more interesting (and potentially feminist) waters. 

Cause in the end, the film is based on Clark’s memoir, the story focalized through him.  And though his real-life experience is novel and remarkable, his strand of the narrative creates an “oh my god, this young nobody kid might actually get to do it with Marilyn Monroe” titillation, which isn’t nearly as interesting as almost everything else going on in the film.  And basically, there’s just too much going on in My Week with Marilyn, a bit too much life to give full breath to.  And beyond this, some of it felt too on the nose, especially in resorting to voice-over a few times, and the film’s closing that was so obviously looking for a bow to tie.  I have a perhaps embarrassing quibble with the title too – I was never really clear on what week it referred to, and once I thought I figured it out, I was still dissatisfied. 

The sight of Marilyn Monroe lolling around in bed, wrapped in sheets, bleary-eyed from too many pills and people’s ‘best’ intentions, obviously foretells her eventual death, but also so eerily recalls the death of Michelle Williams’ former partner, and father of her daughter, Heath Ledger.  I wonder if Williams herself was able to stop her thoughts from this connection.  Actors can often come across as precious, self-obsessed, disconnected, vapid, naïve – whatever – it bears reminding that soul-baring is not for the faint of heart.  Presence has a price.

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