The “centerpiece” of this year’s New York Film Festival, My Week with Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis, played last night and has an encore screening Wednesday. The film comes out November 4.
A predictable, schlocky first love story about a rangy Eton boy’s bildugsroman heartbreak by—here’s the twist—Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), while working as Lawrence Olivier’s assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl in 1950s London. Williams seems a great actress because there’s nothing there to begin with, so any character she plays takes over her body and soul so completely that every role seems a conjuring act. She is particularly suitable, then, for not only reproducing Monroe’s reflection accurately, but exactly replicating Monroe’s blank “fuck me” photoshoot face, the look that made Monroe such a hugely fuckable star. This blank canvas for male fantasy will no doubt make Williams a much bigger star, too, and also get her an Oscar for mimicry. (You can feel the Oscar-baiting sweat in every scene. Williams is a Serious Actress, and wants everyone to know.) The secret star of the film is the DP Ben Smithard, who exactly replicates certain Monroe images buried just under our collective Western consciousness.
While Williams completely nails the look that we know from photos, she falls very short of Monroe’s vivacious performances. The most obvious difference is that Monroe was a comic genius, and Williams is a droopy and mopey blank slate. Williams as Monroe sounds like she is reading funny lines flatly; Monroe, with her mellifluous, put-on of a voice sounded as if she was surprised by every bizarre truth and earthy discovery. Also, Williams is only really curvy in the face, so her chubby cheeks and pillow lips glaringly fall short of Monroe’s perfectly even featured face. And a bottom body double seems obviously used here to replicate what Monroe herself considered the best bottom around.
Which brings us to the most puke-inducing aspect of this biopic equivalent of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” a confirmation and expansion of the most cloying victim myths about Monroe. She was vulnerable. And, as one of the last line states, she didn’t even know she was good, and that’s what made her so great! Bullshit. She was ambitious, mean and well-trained. She was good and she knew it. What is the point of this film when what’s great about her performances (including the actual Prince and the Showgirl, a slight film with moments of soaring and surprising genius) is already visible on DVD? Because clumsy, sweaty efforts that look difficult are easier to admire and to reward than easy-looking, breezy genius.