Williams shines but 'Marilyn' buckles under an uncompelling perspective

Posted by · 8:42 am · October 10th, 2011

Twelve hours later and the desire to write about “My Week with Marilyn” is barely there. I made the obvious joke via Twitter last night: “My (Movie of the) Week with Marilyn,” and that’s the thing. It’s a contained piece that never breaks out in a visually interesting way and is kind of a slog as a result. Director Simon Curtis tries to give it some personality, but he never shakes the whiff of television.

The takeaway, obviously, is Michelle Williams’s performance as Marilyn Monroe. And indeed, she’s quite the breathy thing of beauty in this film, though I’m not as taken with her work here as others seem to be. She portrays a pair of Marilyns, the simple public icon and the clearly more complex woman striving to be an artist underneath. And if you’re asking me (not that anyone is), that is the story, the intriguing dichotomy of star versus actor, not this limp tale of film set gopher Colin Clark’s (Eddie Redmayne) first love that goes nowhere and does nothing to illuminate her or, really, him.

But the film is what it is so I won’t waste time whining about what it should be. Williams does a great job of brushing that nuance into the performance. She’s a conflicted soul, confused by love, daunted by her professional goals, unable to handle the spotlight so bright. It gives the character dimension, and yet there’s an elusiveness to her still, which is actually one interesting by-product of the film’s perspective.

However, Monroe as a character is really burdened under this story of a young man’s one-week emotional love affair. She is frequently reduced to little more than love bunny and that puts the tale at odds with itself. A drugged Monroe pats the side of the bed or snuggles up next to the chap and yes, it’s indicative of a woman desperate for love and understanding, but it all just rubs wrong in a near icky sort of way. At one point I was half expecting it to be “My Date Rape with Marilyn.”

I wanted more of the meat the story inherently has and less of its fat, basically. The film could still have been told from Clark’s point of view, but less in the way of an immature boy’s not-at-all-profound coming of age would have given it a little more muscle.

Williams is likely to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. It’s a role and a performance that will spark plenty of nostalgia from voters and you really can’t deny that spark in your heart you get when the light catches the excited blue of her eyes. Will she win? I don’t know that this is the film that can get her there. (I’ll talk more on the lead actress category later today in this week’s Off the Carpet column.)

Kenneth Branagh is deliciously tyrannical as Sir Laurence Olivier, directing Monroe in “The Prince and the Showgirl” in the film. But he’s also representative of further missed opportunity, one the main character even spells out at one point. Olivier is an actor striving to be a movie star. Monroe is a movie star striving to be an actor. Their parallel internal struggles could have added a whole new thematic layer, especially given the conflict of approaches in Monroe’s method versus Olivier’s classically trained virtues. But it all just plays as background. Branagh stands a great shot at being nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though, as we’ve been hearing for months.

Oh, and as Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh — who in younger days portrayed the role on stage that Monroe is translating to film — Julia Ormond sure had an opportunity to shine, and a chance to give the story some more thematic heft. Pity the film didn’t provide it.

Also worth mentioning is Judi Dench, who isn’t likely to figure into the awards race for her work here, but who is nevertheless a warm and welcome presence in what little screen time she has as British actress Sybil Thorndike.

But the story of “My Week with Marilyn” is the story I kept craning my neck to see around this flimsy yarn about a boy and his hormones. I appreciate the dedication to Clark’s memoir, but I guess sometimes it’s what’s going on around us, not what’s going on within us, that makes for a truly good tale.

“My Week with Marilyn” opens nationwide Friday, November 4.

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