As creatures of habit, it comes as little surprise that our stories tend to take on familiar forms. Much as Joseph Campbell made a mint by illustrating recurring motifs within the hero’s journey, modern audiences are as eager as ever to know that mere mortals once walked among the gods and goddesses of stage and screen (rather than those which belong to the stars), and more importantly, that they’ve often followed in the exact same footsteps every time. Many a showbiz biopic subscribe to the routine, that of the newcomer fleetingly but poignantly partnered with the old-timer. The allure and drama remain the same, whether in My Favorite Year, Me and Orson Welles, or this year’s similarly quasi-personalized My Week with Marilyn.
It’s another true (though unsubstantiated) story forced into a cookie-cutter coming-of-age mold, as 23-year-old Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) pursues a career in filmmaking and stumbles into a third assistant director gig on what would be Laurence Olivier’s 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl. Clark’s accounts would go on to be published under the title of The Prince, the Showgirl and Me; even later, the eponymous recollection of how this young man kept Showgirl star Marilyn Monroe company on Arthur Miller’s return to America would handily manifest itself to no small amount of skepticism.
But in the eyes of director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges -- both TV vets -- it’s an ideal scenario. Crossing the Atlantic for the first time, Monroe (Michelle Williams) gets to win over the English populace when not clashing with the short temper and big ego of director/co-star Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, often amusingly agitated), while Colin gets to see the real person behind her million-dollar smile in between takes and flashbulbs.
Two oft-repeated cues follow: everybody loves her, and nobody within arm’s reach should make the mistake of falling in love with her. Regrettably, this advice isn’t cause enough for Redmayne to deviate from his deer-in-headlights persona, and so far as audience surrogates go, he’s a rather milquetoast one who couldn’t be in a more perfunctory love triangle after concurrently falling for wardrobe girl Lucy (Emma Watson in scowl mode). That leaves our critical ingénue to take the spotlight, and while Williams is quite good in the role, her performance feels bound by the film’s formula to only skim the surface as remarkable impersonation.
We get to see the ease with which Marilyn toys with reporters and fans, only to find the reluctance she faces toward arriving on set overwhelming, although Judi Dench as Sybil Thorndike serves as a sage, fleeting buffer between the oh-so-frail American and the easily flustered Brit. Monroe is surrounded by yes men (Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper, laying into their gruff Yank accents something awful) who don’t like the fact that Colin has become her crying shoulder of choice, not when an entire production is on the line, and so we see her spite them and giggle, only to go home and pop pills once the insecurities return to the brain of our beloved blonde bombshell.
It’s an easy emotional rollercoaster to put an audience through, and while Williams nails the breathy voice and flickers of doubt, her work here is never allowed to feel truly effortless. Take Colin out of the equation, though, or even Marilyn’s own name and reputation, and her performance seems like an infinitely more credible examination of showbiz demands and the divide between countries, generations, schools of thought, and plain old talent that dictated mutually back-scratching productions like these back in the day. But of course, to do that would be to take away My Week with Marilyn’s very raison d’être, its opportunity to put another pretty doll behind the same glass case. Like so many stories before it, this is every bit as real a fantasy as we wish it to be, an exhaustively noble look at those flawed legends who will still be swooned over long after we’re gone.