In 1956, not long after she married Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe made a movie with director and star Laurence Olivier at England’s Pinewood Studios. The film, The Prince and the Showgirl, came from Terence Rattigan’s drawing-room comedy The Sleeping Prince, which Olivier had performed on the London stage opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh.
Fresh out of Oxford, an aspiring young filmmaker named Colin Clark was hired by Olivier to serve as an assistant on the film adaptation. With Miller temporarily back in the States, Clark became Monroe’s guide, confidant, sounding board and almost-lover. Later Clark wrote two books about the contentious, prolonged shoot: The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and, focusing on his special week in close proximity to the alluring icon, My Week With Marilyn.
Now comes the film version of this genteel backstage gossip item. It’s not much. But Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are pretty wonderful in it — the problem, of course, being that actors can’t do anything about the way they’re being filmed, or the script they’re handed.
Amid pedestrian staging and direction, Williams valiantly presents a woman who is equal parts calculation and guilelessness, and whose crippling insecurities and chronic lateness drove Olivier to distraction.
Was Monroe a great actress? More accurate to say she was a fearsomely popular star with flashes of greatness in her, though part of the frustration with My Week With Marilyn lies in the quality of the original film. First-time feature film director Simon Curtis has made a minor picture about a minor picture, major talents notwithstanding.
Branagh slyly keeps his Olivier just this side of parody, even with such details as Olivier’s pigeon-toed walk, his sibilant “s” and his lazily purring speaking voice. Adapted by screenwriter Adrian Hodges, the story hinges on what we see through the innocent eyes of Clark, played — dully — by Eddie Redmayne. Such stalwarts as Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper spice things up as characters of various degrees of familiarity. “All I can say is: Give me vulgarity!” Monroe’s Showgirl character, Elsie, says in the 1911-set movie, taking in the garish finery of her newfound surroundings. My Week With Marilyn could’ve used some of that vulgarity to go with the celebrity fawning.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org