"My Week With Marilyn" presents Michelle Williams with a foredoomed challenge: Make us believe she really is Marilyn Monroe. Very few performances based on movie icons have been anything more than paper-thin impersonations – one big exception: Judy Davis as Judy Garland – so by this reckoning Williams does rather well. She captures not only Monroe's fragility but also the guile and gumption beneath it. What she can't capture, of course, is Monroe's aura, and without it, the performance comes across as something more than mimicry but less than incandescence.
Directed by Simon Curtis and written by Adrian Hodges, the film is based on a series of memoirs by Colin Clark, an upper-class Englishman who, straight out of college, served as a third assistant director in 1957 on "The Prince and the Showgirl," which costarred Monroe with its director, Laurence Olivier (played in the film by Kenneth Branagh).
Like seemingly every male who ever entered her orbit, Clark became smitten with Monroe, who in turn conferred her charm (but apparently not much else) on him. Their duet was aided by the convenient absence of Monroe's new husband, Arthur Miller, who left England shortly after filming began with the marriage already rocky.
The film is seen through Colin's not entirely bedewed eyes. He takes to heart the words of veteran actress Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), who says of Marilyn, "Be careful, boy. She doesn't need to be rescued." Torn between adoring her and protecting her, of seeing her as child-woman or goddess, Colin ends up altogether befuddled, not unhappily so even when his heart is breaking.
The unhappiest camper in "My Week With Marilyn" isn't Colin. It's not even Marilyn, who is fond of saying things like "Why do the people I love always leave me?" It's Olivier, who can't abide his costar's incessant, costly tardiness, moodiness, and memory lapses on the set.
Olivier met his match with Marilyn. Her Method ways of working up for a scene, with coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) always annoyingly on hand, drove Olivier batty.
Branagh is marvelous at conveying his exasperation. His conceit is that Olivier offstage acted the same as Olivier onstage – as if all of life was a vast playlet. For someone as thoroughly actorly as Olivier, this is probably no exaggeration. I would like to think that the great man himself would have smiled at Branagh's rollicking rendition of tantrums. Grade: B (Rated R for some language.)