Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michelle Williams shines in buoyant "Marilyn"

My Week with Marilyn (2011) 
99 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Marilyn Monroe is so iconic that it'd be impossible to replicate her. Anyone that knew Marilyn complimented her for being an astonishing actress, and the same could be said of Michelle Williams. Any drag queen can do a superficial impersonation of the famous bombshell, but Williams goes beyond mimicry. Never just a pop-tart caricature, the resourceful and committed actress gets under her creamy skin. 

"My Week with Marilyn" rests on the mystique of Marilyn Monroe, a cultural icon doubling as both a skillful actress and sex symbol. The film is fascinated with showing the celebrity and the human side of Ms. Monroe, but never checks off a bulleted list of events like a conventional, schematic biopic. It's not really a deep, complex portrait of this culturally identifiable woman—you might already know she overdosed on pills and suffered abandonment issues—but explores her codependent relationship with a starstruck Brit and what will later lead to Miss Monroe's downfall. 

In the film, the "my" applies to Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 23-year-old fresh out of university, and the "week" was in 1956, England. Set during the troubled shooting of Sir Laurence Olivier's minor comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl," this true story comes from Colin's published memoir. A self-proclaimed underachiever in his family, Colin finds solace in the cinema, especially films by Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), so he goes on the hunt for a job interview to prove to his family and himself. He persists in nabbing a production job by camping out every day at the same office, until running into Olivier himself who promised work to the young man at a party. Right away, Colin "joins the circus," becoming the gofer and third assistant director to the director/actor. Then, when Monroe arrives to England with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), the lovestruck Colin becomes infatuated with the perky Hollywood star. Outside of the spotlight, Marilyn is a mess of anxiety of problems. And once "The Prince and the Showgirl" goes into production, Olivier begins to regret casting Miss Monroe from her tardiness coming on set, total reliance on her acting coach, and blowing of takes. Soon, Colin starts getting private phone calls from Marilyn, and he becomes her closest confidante. Though only seven years apart, Colin and Monroe's unlikely relationship is perceived to be wrong by all of her hanger-on assistants.
Expectedly, like Meryl Streep, Williams always brings her 'A' game. As she's proven every time in her glammed-down indie performances, she can do anything and can now check Marilyn Monroe off her actor bucket list. Her portrayal is extraordinary. Though not a physical dead ringer, Williams not only re-creates the giggle and wiggle of Monroe, but embodies the vulnerability, neediness, insecurity, and anxiety, too. She plays Marilyn on different levels: the popular blonde starlet, the talented actress, and scared little Norma Jean. She makes it charming, layered, and heartbreaking. Even in the film's opening, Williams sings with her breathy voice and wiggles with her bodacious figure to "Heat Wave." 

Redmayne's Colin has a bland personality, which actually seems motivated for the character, and a boyish sweetness that would seem to reassure Marilyn. In a deliciously funny performance, Branagh conveys tight-lipped exasperation as Olivier the artiste and actor. The stellar supporting cast also makes an impression, including Dame Judi Dench, doing strong work as peace-making actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Julia Ormond, lovely and yet vulnerable as Olivier's age-conscious actress wife, Vivien Leigh; Toby Jones reliably playing crass agent Arthur Jacobs; Zoë Wanamaker as Marilyn's coddling method acting coach Paula Strasberg; and Dominic Cooper as producer Milton Greene. Only does Emma Watson get saddled with the underwritten part of Lucy, the set wardrobe assistant who receives the brunt of Colin's neglect; their relationship comes out of thin air.

With a background of producing and directing British TV, Simon Curtis makes his feature directorial debut here and shows a buoyant touch. Screenwriter Adrian Hodges and Curtis capture a straightforward, briskly paced study of Marilyn Monroe that might not teach us anything new, but it's kept highly watchable and entertaining. The production design, even for a little, smaller-budgeted film, has an unerring eye for the re-created period in England. "My Week with Marilyn" is a marshmallowy but delicious dish, with Williams as the cherry on top. She lights up every scene.

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