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New York Film Festival 2011: My Week with Marilyn

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>My Week with Marilyn</em>

At the Q&A following the press screening of My Week with Marilyn, director Simon Curtis said he fell in love with the two Colin Clark memoirs the script is based on because of the insights they provided into Marilyn Monroe. A funny thing must have happened on the way to Film Forum though. Either those insights just didn’t make it into the screenplay or else Curtis knows a lot less about Hollywood’s Lady of Perpetual Sorrow than I had thought was possible for any reasonably well-educated citizen of the developed world.

Michelle Williams’s Marilyn is a thinking, feeling human being, but My Week with Marilyn’s script is so banal (“I’m not a goddess. I just want to be loved like a regular girl,” the poor girl has to say) that she relies almost entirely on body language and facial expressions to convey Monroe’s essence. Viewed from a distance or with dark glasses on, she looks remarkable like her, especially when she recreates the funny little dance Monroe’s character performs to amuse herself when she’s left alone for a bit in The Prince and the Showgirl, the god-awful romantic comedy Monroe was filming under the direction of her co-star, Laurence Olivier (brayed by Kenneth Branagh), during the week of the movie’s title.

Williams looks pretty convincing from the neck up too, as long as she’s wearing dark glasses, but when she takes them off there’s just no forgetting that she isn’t Monroe. That’s partly because the actress can’t quite empty the personality from her face or the intelligence from her eyes, a trick that was part of Monroe’s signature come-hither, no-boundaries/no-judgment sex-doll expression. But it’s also that Williams just doesn’t look much like Monroe, and lord knows we all know what Monroe looked like.

That might not have mattered much if we’d been offered more of Marilyn than her too-familiar surface, but the film only tells us tired truisms about her. Did you know that she never got the love she needed as a child? That she popped too many pills as an adult? That she was afraid everyone she loved would abandon her, maybe because just about all of them eventually did? That she longed to become a great actress but never believed she had made it? Of course you did.

The most interesting questions are left unanswered, if they’re even asked. Was she a great actress or just a “natural,” born to seduce the camera? And what was behind her notoriously difficult behavior on the set? Miriam Bale’s article about Monroe for MUBI provides far more detailed and interesting answers to those questions than the movie does.

Colin Clark (the perpetually gobsmacked-looking Eddie Redmayne) was a sheltered manchild of 23 when he got his week with Monroe. They spent much of that time playing hooky from the film set when the star got tired of Olivier’s constant sniping, the pressure she felt to excel, and the hackneyed script: “She doesn’t feel real,” she says of her character.

It’s fun, at first, to watch Colin fulfill his fantasy of working in the movie business, hanging around with glamorous types like Olivier, and his flirty wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), the menschy Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), and, of course, Monroe. But he loses us as surely as he does the spunky wardrobe girl he was wooing (Emma Watson at her most wooden) when he tumbles for Monroe and (oh dear, oh dear) imagines that she’s fallen for him too. With his stunned-animal gaze, late-adolescent lack of self-knowledge or perspective, and laughable romantic fantasy, it’s impossible to take Colin seriously; he’s a comic foil who’s been written as a dramatic lead.

The relationship between Monroe and Olivier, who are portrayed as roaringly needy narcissists with competing agendas, is more interesting than the one between Monroe and Colin. Unfortunately, it’s more talked about than shown, consisting mostly of Branagh spitting out elegantly bitchy insults: “Trying to teach Marilyn to act is like teaching Urdu to a badger,” he declares. In one of the best lines, Colin tells Monroe that Olivier is a great actor who wants to be a movie star, she’s a movie star who wants to be a great actress, and this movie won’t do either one of them any favors.

At times like that, I wondered what Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges or Howard Hawkes might have done with this material, reworked as fast-talking comedy. Just think of the possibilities: A wildly popular and hopelessly insecure actress crosses the ocean to make a meretricious piece of junk with a bunch of aging theatrical stars to show the world that she can act, but all she does is inadvertently prove that the stage actors can’t hold a candle to her on film. Meanwhile, a star-struck kid goes gaga over the actress and tries to “save” her from the profession she’s trying so hard to be worthy of.

Come to think of it, it’s just the kind of role Monroe would have played the hell out of.

The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.