If “My Week with Marilyn” wasn’t such a slight film, Michelle Williams would probably have a lock on an Oscar for her performance as Marilyn Monroe making the long-forgotten 1957 British film “The Prince and the Showgirl.”
The film debuted at the New York Film Festival to a torrent of deserved praise for Williams, but there has been a growing backlash against “My Week With Marilyn” since then.
What makes the performance so astonishing is that the actress doesn’t try to do an impression of the 1950s icon — she doesn’t really look or sound much like Monroe — but she delivers an interpretation that is moving and funny in the way that it seems to capture the essence of the star.
On one level, Williams is overqualified for the role — in movies as diverse as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Blue Valentine,” she has proven herself to be a much more skilled and versatile screen actress than Monroe ever was. The 1950s sexpot was a great camera subject and a gifted comedienne, but it’s painful to watch her struggling to act up to the level of her co-stars in pictures like “The Misfits.”
Williams is devilishly clever in “My Week with Marilyn,” showing us both the tormented woman who wanted to be a better actress and the charismatic star who didn’t need to act to dazzle movie audiences in everything from “Niagara” to “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
Before it begins to focus on the friendship between Marilyn and a young assistant director (Eddie Redmayne), the movie is a fascinating study in styles of screen acting as Monroe clashes with her director/co-star Laurence Olivier (beautifully played by Kenneth Branagh).
Monroe and her producer partner put “The Prince and the Showgirl” together, so she was actually Olivier’s boss, but Olivier’s fame as a stage and screen great scared her to death. Olivier didn’t help matters by failing to recognize Marilyn’s limitations right from the start — when he told her flatly to “act sexy” that was probably the kiss of death on the performance by an actress who had fallen under the spell of “the Method” at The Actors Studio.
As long as the movie focuses on the culture clash between Olivier and Monroe — and the tense people around them including Marilyn’s sycophantic coach Paula Strasberg (played with real comic brio by Zoe Wanamaker) — it’s amusing and insightful on the behind-the-scenes stress of actors trying to get on the same page.
“My Week with Marilyn” starts to drift away when it deals with the assistant director’s crush on the star and their quasi-romantic adventures away from the studio. A rather tough-minded movie turns into romantic fluff and Williams gets fewer opportunities to show us her acute understanding of the woman she is playing.