Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Week With Marilyn (2011) - Directed by Simon Curtis

I have been traveling and working in the UK for the last four weeks. As I write this, I am entering into my final week of this trip. I have spent time working with many wonderful British people as well as getting a deep dose of the culture here and the work ethic. I also had the privilege of spending some time traveling around the country on some days off, taking in the beauty of the Lake District and even Scotland before the snow fell. It was wonderful to have this experience. However, I’ve also at times felt like a fish out of water. One of the great challenges to being in another country once the sightseeing stops, is to try to function within normal society. I haven’t encountered any other Americans on this trip (perhaps a good thing), which added to the feeling of being different. Maybe it’s the time of year or the poor economy, but it has been interesting to be the “only American” around. I’ve felt like the odd one out, speaking with an American accent at the grocery store or the mall doing ordinary things where tourists don’t normally venture. Today, in fact, I went somewhere that tourists don't normally go: I went to the cinema and saw Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn.  Not only is it a brilliant entertainment and a superb fantasy, but I found a catharsis and sympathy in Marilyn’s plight, as she too was a fish out of water in this story involving her coming to England to shoot a rather ill-fated film with actor/director Laurence Olivier.

My Week with Marilyn is based on the diaries and memoir by Colin Clark, “The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me” and "My Week With Marilyn"(he was 3rd Assistant Director on The Prince and the Showgirl), where he recounts his short-term, but supposed deep connection to the most famous of movie stars: Marilyn Monroe, played with pure conviction here by Michelle Williams. In 1956, she embarked on a project with Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Brannagh), pairing the two of them in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), with Olivier in fact behind the camera as well as in front. Olivier's film is a rather bland confection, but Clark’s memoir (he was 3rd Assistant Director on the film), and My Week With Marilyn, documents the story of Monroe’s difficulty to work with Olivier during the production, her troubles with her new marriage to Henry Miller, and the rather odd and fortuitous (for Clark) relationship with the young Clark during the making of the film. Many of the best and most interesting scenes in the film involve Marilyn, her Method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and Olivier as they fuss and fight over work styles. For fans of classic cinema, these scenes are absolutely delicious fun.

I don’t normally go for films like this. I found last year’s The King’s Speech (2010) to be rather as expected, not containing many surprises. There might be something more to My Week With Marilyn though. This is not a “biopic”, which is usually meant to portray the entire life and breadth of a key figure. Instead, this film captures a short term glimpse of a star and is not subjective to the baggage of normal biopics, with the usual length and sogginess that comes with trying to capture everything. This is a film from Clark’s perspective looking at Marilyn Monroe, not the internal perspective of Marilyn looking outward. We never really encounter Marilyn except in the presence of Clark, or sometimes Olivier as well. In this way, Marilyn remains at a distance from us just as initially Clark is at a distance from her. When Clark is brought inter her inner circle, we have the privilege of going there with him. It is the paralleled point of view of Clark and the audience that maintains this important synergy. What in fact makes the movie succeed is this rather strict and intentional point of view that allows the audience to maintain a link with the subjective source of the material, rather than become distanced as objective observers of the proceedings. Clark is a rather blank canvas of sorts. We project ourselves into his shoes and we become Clark through this point of view. It’s not that we are flies on the wall. We are, in fact, this young man. He, in essence, lived out what millions of people would consider their greatest fantasy: to spend intimate moments with a mega star. Be it Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Michelle Williams (or whomever), there surely are times when moviegoers or fans have dreamed about what it would be like to meet such a person. I’ve wondered myself what it would be like if I could go back in time and have lunch with Garbo. What would I say? What would I do? My Week With Marilyn allows us to realize such a fantasy and put us right in the middle of it. Of course, what's in it for Marilyn? It's all mostly a trifle with nothing behind it. She is directionless, drugged, and utterly tragic and despairing. Clark gets to enact his rather selfish fantasy. But, Marilyn remains the exploited one in all of this. Where is her solace to be found?

Of course here is where we must have a discussion of Michelle Williams. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should turn my entire blog into a Michelle Williams fan page as I’ve already written about her glorious acting in Blue Valentine (2010) and Meek’s Cutoff  (2010) and my vote of approval at this point is rather redundant. However, I must admit that normally when I see an actor or actress take a role such as this, I tend to think of it as a sellout. In this case though, I feel like Williams has paid her dues. She’s done the indie films and the small pictures and created tremendous work along the way. Thus, I think she deserved this role and the chance to shine for the masses. I think Williams has earned all the accolades she will get for this role. Whether it’s her greatest performance or not isn’t a point to bicker on. It will likely be her iconic performance though. It will be the one she is remembered for by most people many years from now. As Monroe, Williams rightly stays far from any sense of caricature. She doesn’t play it too big, which allows the audience to sympathize with her humanity, and there is a deep humility and respect at the core of the performance that provides a transparency even though Marilyn remains rather enigmatic. It’s brilliant stuff all the way.

Whether all of this really happened back in 1956 is beside the point. The conceit works whether it’s truth or fiction. I would probably be so inclined to believe that with decades in hindsight, Clark’s memoir (which I haven’t read yet) would be highly subjective to the haze that envelope memories as they grow old. I actually think the film tends to capture the golden glow of such memories to the point that the film is rather absurdly glossy. This is not a flaw. On the contrary, if the film were to enact a greater sense of importance or realism, it could have become far too soggy. By keeping the glossy and glowing look, it gives greater weight to the subjective point of view and perspective, and I personally could care less whether the story is true or completely fabricated. It works cinematically, and that's my main concern. Although it’s clearly not the best film of the year, it is one of the best films of its kind and in my world there is room for films like this.


Sam Juliano said...

Hello Jon my very good friend!

My aplogies for getting over here late, but I am just now getting a grip on my on-line activities and the hectic movie-going and family preparations for the holidays. I was thrilled top read some of the stories about your trip, one I'm sure you will treasure fondly for the rest of your life.

I liked MY WEEK WITH MARILYN as well, even with some lesser concerns that still for me prevent for achieving first-rank status. I agree with you on Williams, who is one of our greatest female stars, and like you agree she was excellent in BLUE VALENTINE and MEEK'S CUTOFF (the latter film not one of my favorites, but no matter) I did feel that Branagh was fine, though his character seemed to be painted too mean-spirited for the real Olivier. The film was conventional in one sense, yet it was beautifully filmed and reasonably engrossing. Some do feel that Williams should have acted sexier, but that's really a matter of interpretation. Eddie Redmayne was very fine here too.

You have penned a mighty piece here Jon!

Welcome back!

Jon said...

Hi Sam!

Thanks for stopping by and I always enjoy your comments. I certainly don't hold this up to something like The Tree of Life or anything like that, but I found something special here and it may have also been part of the context in which I watched it. As for Williams needing to act sexier (which you mention some have said), it seems to me that part of the allure of the film is getting to see "Monroe" during her downtime when she shouldn't have really been "sexy" if you know what I mean. As Williams has stated in many interviews, "Marilyn Monroe" was a character that Norma Jean would play for the public and for the movies, but offscreen would drop the persona. Anyway, I'm just relaying what Williams has stated from her point of view. No complaints on her performance from me and I thought it was well-played all the way. I actually thought Redmayne was good as well, in a role that is not meant to shine per se. He's actually playing Richard III over in England right now on stage. Interesting. Anyway, I decided to highlight a film here, of the type that I would not normally spotlight as it kind of tied into my trip very nicely.

Judy said...

Jon, as you know, I also liked 'A Week with Marilyn' - I agree that it has a seductive golden glow to it and I found it interesting to see how it portrays two sides of Marilyn, both the private woman and the "goddess". You can see her instantly transformed from one to the other at the drop of a hat when the cameras are turned on her. I agree Michelle Williams is excellent - especially liked this comment of yours:

"As Monroe, Williams rightly stays far from any sense of caricature. She doesn’t play it too big, which allows the audience to sympathize with her humanity, and there is a deep humility and respect at the core of the performance that provides a transparency even though Marilyn remains rather enigmatic."

I also really like Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier - he probably does move a bit more into caricature at times (not surprisingly given that he is playing Olivier, and so bound to ham it up a bit!) but anyway I think he is great in the role and it reminds me just how much I like both Olivier and Branagh.

Jon, I really like your blog and will be visiting again to catch up on some of the posts I have missed!

Jon said...

Judy! So glad you stopped by and I most value highly your comments and insight here. I think I explained exactly why I love the film and I know most people don't see the film as more than a passing trifle, but I found a lot more in the film than I ever expected to. You're definitely right about Branagh though. He's terrifically fun as Olivier and it's such a treat to see it all acted out. I just loved the contrast between Marilyn and Olivier and their work styles. It made for great entertainment. Also your comments about the two sides of Marilyn are shared of course by Michelle Williams who in her research did come to the conclusion that this would be a central component of her performance.

Carmen said...

If with Blue Valentine Michelle Williams earned a well deserved Oscar nomination, My Week with Marilyn certainly consecrates her as a screen royalty. Michelle Williams not only physically resembles Marilyn Monroe, but displays her charming screen persona as if possessed by Marilyn herself.

Jon said...

Thanks Carmen for sharing your appreciation for Michelle Williams here. She is quite an actress and very talented. I'm glad you liked her in this film.