My Week with Marilyn
Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Dougray Scott
and Julia Ormond  
Rated R for language
1 hr. 39 mins.

“Why is he so mean to me?” whines a pouty Marilyn Monroe to Colin Clark, her gawky and befreckled 23-year-old confidant, whose memoir of his time spent as a gofer on the set of 1956’s The Prince and the Showgirl forms the basis of director Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn. She’s referring to legendary British actor Laurence Olivier, her increasingly impudent director and co-star. The answer to that question is pretty obvious: In addition to bringing a traveling circus of minders and hangers-on with her to London, Monroe is late for shooting every day, and she can’t remember any of her lines. But, like any guy trying to charm his way into a girl’s pants, Clark offers her a more delicate response. “He’s a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you’re a film star who wants to be a great actor,” he explains. “This film won’t help either of you.”

That proved to be true of the movie-within-the-movie. The Prince and the Showgirl was a flop. As for My Week with Marilyn, it’ll certainly help at least one of its actors: Michelle Williams, who makes the most of an impossible task. After a string of acclaimed, decidedly unglamorous, roles in audience-ignored films such as Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, she glams up to the highest degree possible to play Monroe, a woman so luminescent that almost a half-century after her death, there still hasn’t been another female celebrity to match her as a subject of public fascination. Although the title suggests the movie is about Eddie Redmayne as the constantly pie-eyed Clark, and even though she’s surrounded by a murderer’s row of English acting talent — Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Emma Watson — Marilyn is designed with one goal in mind: getting Williams her first Oscar.

Outside of her performance, however, My Week with Marilyn is much too light and frivolous to function as true awards-bait. According to screenwriter Adrian Hodges’ adaptation of his book, Clark’s week gallivanting with Monroe mostly included attending to her pill-induced freakouts, platonically spooning her in bed, taking her sightseeing and going skinny-dipping. Granted, jumping naked into a lake with the most famous sexpot on the planet makes for an untrumpable dinner party anecdote, but it’s not enough to serve as a window for new revelations about a figure whose complicated life has been analyzed ad nauseum for 50-plus years. Other than Branagh hamming it up as the exasperated, Shakespeare-quoting Olivier, there isn’t much else to watch here aside from Williams’ transformation.

And it is a sight to behold, even if it’s incomplete. Impersonating Monroe is easy — ask any drag performer worth his heels. Capturing her magnetism in a performance that goes beyond a cheap Vegas impression is the hard part. While Williams has the look and the mannerisms nailed, Monroe’s intangible charisma eludes her. That should hardly be held against her, though. Besides, this is a film that’s more about Norma Jean Baker, the fatally insecure woman encased in the curvaceous body of the world’s most lusted-after sex object. Portraying the wounded, self-conscious girl underneath the bombshell exterior is where Williams truly succeeds. Marilyn’s best moments are those that show the icon at her most unguarded: hiding in her dressing room, trying to gather the courage to drag herself onto the soundstage, awkwardly flubbing lines in scene after scene, slurring her speech while loaded up on a platter of prescription drugs. It makes the scenes in which she reflexively switches into pouting naif mode whenever faced with the press or the public — a way of masking her internal pain — brutally sad. If Williams does indeed win an Academy Award for the role, it will be — or rather should be — for wrenching out the vulnerability beneath the surface of Monroe’s winking, seductive celebrity persona. It’ll be well-earned.