NYFF '11 Review: My Week With Marilyn

· Joanthan Poritsky

Simon Curtis’s My Week With Marilyn is very much a Weinstein Company release. It is an impersonation romp more suited to the small screen than to the cinema. Replete with stunning performances, a corny soundtrack and uninspired technique, it is the stuff that the brothers Weinstein know how to spin into gold. And, much like The King’s Speech of last year, it will likely overcome its own mediocrity and dazzle awards voters all season long. It is the easiest answer to the Best Picture question.

Let’s start with the performances. Michelle Williams gets very close to brilliance portraying the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, a feat that shouldn’t (and won’t; see above) go uncommended. As complicated as Monroe was in her own time, her image has been Xeroxed, caricatured, overdone and parodied to death since her passing. It would be too easy for Williams to do Marilyn burlesque, a sort of recreation of the woman through her on-screen manifests. Thankfully, she becomes something more; a woman playing the part of the woman she wishes she could be.

The role, however, falls short of illuminating too much outside of what the dialogue spoon-feeds us. Throughout the lumbering screenplay we are told that Marilyn is a broken woman who uses up the people around her. We wait for her to pulverize our hero, the young Colin Clark played by Eddie Redmayne. Colin is the son of an aristocrat who wishes to run off and make movies, eventually landing a gig as the third assistant director on a new film by Sir Laurence Olivier starring Monroe. Olivier is played by Kenneth Branagh, a Briton who has earned a stature similar to the man he is portraying. Much like Williams, Brangh does his damnedest to sidestep farce and imbue his Olivier with only the slightest hint of homage, bringing out a spark of something more than the man we would see so many times on screen.

So, young Colin Clark finds himself amidst giants, with the greatest actor in the world teaming up alongside the hottest commodity in Hollywood. And he has seemingly unfettered access to both. Marilyn shows up late to set on a regular basis and is always accompanied by a cabal of handlers, the most vocal of whom is her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). In a bit of backstage cleverness, this matchup of stars sets up a clash of acting styles. Monroe is fascinated by Colin who treats her as a woman instead of as a piece of meat. And so the two frolic for a fleeting period, at the expense of Colin’s untimely meet-cute with a wardrobe girl, Lucy (Emma Watson).

Since the Curtis is winkingly telling a tale of the filmmaking process (method acting’s rise, on-set union clashes, a new age of celebrity worship, etc.) perhaps it would have done him some good to revisit Syd Field or even Aristotle. The story is shoddy and the characters learn nothing. Worse, very little is at stake for our young hero who is forced to choose between beautiful and most beautiful. An aristocrat trying to make a name for himself can be a compelling story, but in this case Colin has so little to lose we have no reason to care. His love of Monroe never transcends schoolboy infatuation, yet we are expected to believe him when he asks the starlet to run away together. It’s going to take a lot more than charm and sweater-vests to bark up that tree.

With all this talk of story, I should perhaps be lambasting screenwriter Adrian Hodges, but I’m not so sure that’s where things first went wrong. There are a lot of elements of the story that could work and play instead as missed opportunities. The culture clash of actors abroad and the mental state of a young Monroe (before Some Like it Hot, before Kennedy) are brilliant fodder for a great story. All of the pieces are there on screen but they never cohere into something that goes beyond lecturing; they never form together to make cinema.

The fault then, I suspect, should lie with director Simon Curtis, but perhaps there is more at work here. I can’t get over how similar this film feels to The King’s Speech. Stylistically on almost every count, even down to those damned wide lenses, Marilyn mimics the prior film. Can it be, then, that the Weinsteins are to blame? Harvey has a long history of watering down films in order to land an Oscar, but I think that process has now flipped around, inviting filmmakers to keep their aspirations in check and take the easiest route possible. It’s a real shame, because there’s a great story trying to break through here, with a world-class cast dying to do good. Unfortunately, it never comes together into something more than “just okay.”