'My Week With Marilyn': Does Michelle Williams Get Marilyn Monroe Right?

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Judging by the film's festival debut last night: Yes.

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The Weinstein Co.

Despite everything that's been written and said about Marilyn Monroe, the California girl baptized and raised Norma Jeane Baker remains an enigma. Everyone knows her as the sex symbol— her pouty lips, curled hair, soft complexion, suggestive demeanor—just as well as they know the tales of her being a troubled, drugged star. Where's the woman in between?

So there's ample use for a movie like My Week with Marilyn, which premiered at the New York Film Festival last night and hits theaters November 4. Based on two autobiographical books by writer-director Colin Clark, the film chronicles the author's time spent befriending, aiding and chauffeuring Monroe in England during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956.

Williams is extraordinary, nailing each of Monroe's facets while offering the sort of disappearing act that can win Oscars

Director Simon Curtis approaches the material as a high-end backstage comedy, emphasizing the severe culture clash that erupts when the method-acting, entourage-toting Monroe (Michelle Williams) tries to blend with Prince director/star Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his old-fashioned, theatrically trained cast, who had no use for that "rubbish." There's a frenzy of activity throughout the picture, which convincingly depicts the chaos of a film set thrown into anarchy.

Ample theatrics abound, as Branagh's Olivier preens, shouts and, yes, quotes Shakespeare. The movie has the zing of a production on full tilt, straining to give its audience a comprehensive dose of behind-the-scenes mania. Curtis clearly relishes the opportunity to restage major bits of the unheralded Prince, and he approaches the goings-on in the smoke-filled screening rooms, production offices, and other Pinewood Studios locations with the passion of a period fanatic.

In many respects, the movie is as much about its snapshot of an era of British film production and as it is about Monroe. Yet, much of the dialogue is centered on the various ways people perceive of the icon, it is her name in the title, and her erotically charged friendship with the young Colin (Eddie Redmayne), spurs The Prince and the Showgirl's third assistant director to come of age.

In bringing Marilyn to life, the picture employs a three-pronged conceit: There's the familiar public figure, the absent-minded but remarkably gifted actress, and the scared, vulnerable private woman. Williams is extraordinary in the part, nailing each facet of the character while offering the sort of comprehensive disappearing act that can win Oscars.

She gets the familiar mannerisms down with ease: the flirty, bouncy public demeanor; the sense of constant posing; the wide, inviting smile with her head tossed back. It's an almost eerily precise resurrection of the Monroe image, imbued with the come-hither attitude that oozed a sort of impossibly fantastical sexuality. Yet there's a knowing quality to Williams's work—the sense that Monroe could be a master manipulator who understood how to use the popular notion of "Marilyn Monroe" to enthrall the media, entrance the public, and secure her place in showbiz.

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At the same time, Williams painstakingly recreates Monroe the onscreen performer. She gets the seductive singing voice in the musical numbers that bookend the film, and the innocent quality that distinguished Monroe's film acting when she appears in the picture's recreations of The Prince and the Showgirl. There's a poignant earnestness to the depiction of Monroe's desperate drive to be taken seriously as an actress. Williams achieves the effect of making Monroe seem simultaneously larger than life and altogether smaller than her co-stars during the production scenes. Overcome by fear, relying closely on her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), Marilyn seems submerged by the burdens of acting for Olivier with his high-minded company. Monroe the professional is an ethereal figure, arriving to set brimming with poorly suppressed emotion, often late and on an endless supply of pills. She can't remember her lines; as the takes mount, concern sets in among the crew. And then, suddenly, she's perfect, devouring the camera as only a great movie star can.

Finally, Williams seamlessly blends the public Monroe with the quiet, nervous 30-year-old who speaks of wanting to be loved, fantasizes about making distant husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) matzo ball soup, and is temporarily drawn to the innocent Colin. The movie never quite makes you believe in their improbable friendship, which plays like the stuff of tame fan fiction when the pair goes skinny dipping. But with her pleading eyes and playful childlike demeanor, at least when the character's not enmeshed in a drugged stupor, Williams hints at a young woman desperate to be freed from the shackles of her fame.

Marilyn Monroe was too big of a personality, too important a symbol, to ever be fully explained. My Week with Marilyn shouldn't be confused with a biopic and it shouldn't be framed as some sort of crackpot attempt to get to the bottom of things. Her tripartite image portrayed here is based on one man's fleeting impressions of the legend, developed over the course of production on one film, one week spent together. The truth, of course, is that Monroe is what you make of her. Still, Williams offers a powerful way in.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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