My Week with Marilyn doesn’t begin well. In what looks like a Rob Marshall outtake, Michelle Williams awkwardly ambles across a stage singing a cruise-ship rendition of “Heat Wave,” her Jessica Rabbit evening gown reflecting the tacky pink and orange lights. Williams appears reluctant, maybe a little scared, and certainly not at home when leaning against a pianist and doing jazz hands on her breasts. She’s soon swept up and cradled by two strapping men, blowing a kiss to the camera before the scene cuts to the title, an inelegant bit of text barely befitting WE tv. The intro is an accurate preface of what’s to follow, from the palpable apprehension to the Monroe falseness to the near-complete small-screen vibe, the latter an egregious indication of director Simon Curtis’s television origins. Perhaps it was somewhat inevitable for a film about Marilyn Monroe to recall the biopics and true Hollywood stories we’ve all seen in the comfort of our own homes, but Curtis’s redundant, derivative fluff piece, adapted by fellow TV vet Adrian Hodges from Prince and the Showgirl PA Colin Clark’s diaries, has such meager artistic ambitions that the tales we caught at home prove superior simply for coming first. You’ve seen My Week with Marilyn countless times, most likely with better editing and more tonal consistency. For all its buoyancy, this movie is naggingly small-time, and talk of it being Best Picture material is flat-out insane.
Williams, however, quickly settles into one of the year’s best performances, and one of its purest sources of movie bliss. The opening number is confusing, for while you might say the ever-reliable actress intentionally flubbed it so as to poke a hole in Marilyn’s perpetual facade, such a notion doesn’t quite jell with what she’s giving. Nevertheless, she morphs into a truly magical thing, nostalgic and new at once, exciting as both timeless icon and fascinating soul. In what has unfortunately become a trend among many of this year’s finest turns, the wonder of Williams’s Marilyn isn’t on the page. It’s all in the looks, the winks, the childlike ignorance, the way she pops a cork on a line to give it zest, the way she carries the different versions of herself. Williams’s certain Best Actress nomination will be wholly earned, just as comparisons to greats like Streep are wholly warranted. Her ability to elevate mediocrity, even garbage, into something unmissable is a truly rare gift, one that’s bound to win her favor with the more discriminating awards bodies whose choices bleed into the Academy’s consciousness.
That she’s playing Marilyn Monroe certainly doesn’t hurt, either, as portrayals of real-life showbiz legends are about as baity as it gets. Such is what will chiefly shuffle Kenneth Branagh into Supporting Actor contention, pitting his flamboyant caricature of Sir Laurence Olivier against Christopher Plummer’s flamboyant septuagenarian from Beginners, the only other lock in this category. Branagh’s situation is much more a matter of politics, and even most write-ups of the film speak more of the actor’s appropriateness for the role than whether or not he nails it. Branagh occupies an aspect of this film that Williams does not: the ill-conceived decision to strive for a 1950s buffoonery that clashes with the behind-the-music Norma Jeane tragedy (not to mention all that connect-the-dots, coming-of-age heartache). However exciting in terms of its placement in Branagh’s filmography, and however industry-friendly a nod to Olivier’s theatricality, Branagh’s nuance-free hamminess becomes a sore thumb against the dreamy and emotional Michelle Williams Show.
The only other actor who seems to be on Williams’s lofty and admirable plane—because it certainly isn’t the cloyingly precious Emma Watson, the weirdly miscast Julia Ormond, or the sadly generic Eddie Redmayne—is the inexhaustible Judi Dench, whose shrewd and tack-sharp mix of light comedy and wise sympathy make her Dame Sybil Thorndike a hugely welcome presence. Dench’s performance here has a better shot of landing her in the Supporting Actress race than her Mrs. Bates-style turn in J. Edgar, as it’s more substantial, more of a showcase, and part of a film that’s generally more popular. And furthermore, she’s often clad in extravagant Costumes by Jill Taylor, which call to mind her Oscar royalty and mark the only other arena in which the film is likely to perform. Apart from recreating the ornate looks within The Prince and the Showgirl, the source of Dench’s regal threads, Taylor, who’s repeatedly worked with Woody Allen, churns out a whole lot of pre-1960s fashions teeming with post-Mad Men appeal. A Marilyn Monroe performance can’t very well exist without the proper style, and Williams will probably see Taylor tag along on her awards trail, reaping the benefits of dressing an actress who slips on a character’s outfits, then disappears in her skin.
Surest bets: Best Actress, Michelle Williams; Best Supporting Actor, Kenneth Branagh; Best Costume Design.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actress, Judi Dench.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: None.