Going off the rails in its very first scene, showing its protagonist, Colin Clark (also the author of the memoirs on which the script is based), going to the pictures to see the iconic Marilyn Monroe, My Week with Marilyn’s shotgun blast of first impressions includes a toothy, vaguely unpleasant spokesperson with a smile that looks like it hurts, a halfway decent impersonation of the Some Like It Hot legend, and a sense of what 1950s movies looked like that is so disastrously wrong, it adds a dimension of unintentional comedy all its own.
In the second sequence, the movie begins to talk, our spring-stepped, youthful narrator saying things like “I was ’the disappointment’” and “I had to go out on my own and prove myself,” and so on. You know, real Oscar Wilde-type stuff. It soon becomes clear, as the non-story is set in motion, that My Week with Marilyn is little more than Styrofoam packaging for a Michelle Williams Oscar campaign, all shrink-wrapped and ready to go. Director Curtis, a 20-year veteran of the BBC, spruces things up with King’s Speech-style acute angles, his actors bathed in beatific auras normally reserved for beautiful women on the original Star Trek series. The emergent hodgepodge of film strips is fused together with cutting so spatially incoherent as to compete directly with a Michael Bay movie: a slow wide-angle pan stapled to an up-angle two shot, a cut mid-sentence to an over-the-shoulder close-up, etc.
One of the New York Film Festival’s most purely and crassly commercial entries this year, only the star performances in My Week with Marilyn, cartoonish as they are, make seeing the film worth the effort. In many of the roles she’s taken since Brokeback Mountain, Williams has opted for the de-glam route. What worked well once for Charlize Theron has worked tenfold for the Dawson’s Creek alum, who has earned legitimacy several times over through hard work, smart choices, and an estimable screen presence. As Marilyn, she builds a memorable character around movement and posture, rather than simply aping the icon’s speech patterns. This is the opposite of Kenneth Branagh’s approach to his role as the (arguably) equally legendary Sir Laurence Olivier: Branagh partakes in one of the lesser-known traditions of the English theater, perfect mimicry (see also Anthony Hopkins and Peter Ustinov). But he’s a lot of fun, nevertheless. And as small a wonder it is that Dame Judi Dench should be so casually luminous playing a character named Dame Sybil Thorndike, it’s still a great pleasure.
Apart from the cast, it’s hard to imagine where the movie could have been saved, could have become something more like a movie, less like a vessel for the Oscar-baiting opportunism of its distributors. One wonders if anyone in the camera department dared to object that its amber-hued lighting couldn’t cover up for the fact that there was nothing to shoot, or if the editor tore his hair out when he saw the rushes, or if in fact it was the editor’s fault that individual sequences, shot in simple enough setups, should be assembled in a way that makes blindingly little sense. The answer to all such questions is not to ask any questions. There might be a trophy in it for Williams, and she’s had one with her name on it for some time now. That’s all that matters.