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The Most Tender Tribute Marilyn Monroe Has Ever Received

David Thomson on Films

Some time towards the end of this delightful entertainment, the realization dawns of how much courage Michelle Williams needed in accepting the offer to play Marilyn Monroe. Yet an hour earlier, I had been asking, “Oh, why do it? Why take on this child monster yet again, in the year before we will be inundated with memories and garbage at the fiftieth anniversary of her death?”

The more familiar the icon or celebrity in a movie biopic, the more hazardous it is to attempt impersonation, a process that can look stilted or unnecessary on screen. So all credit to director Simon Curtis for handling the tricky operation, and immense praise to Ms. Williams. However, I believe the heart of the film, and the cleverest stroke of all, is Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark, someone few of us will have heard of.

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe Productions came to London. The movie star who was famous (and sometimes wounded, sometimes not) for being a dumb blonde was trying to take charge of her career and her life. A part of her was ashamed of being a mess and the plaything of crude and cruel minds. She had lately taken her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, and she was ready to see show business through his eyes. She was going for respectability and prestige; she was going to act. The vehicle was a play, The Sleeping Prince, by Terence Rattigan, about the stuffy ruler of a country called Carpathia who comes to London for the coronation of King George V and gets involved with a showgirl. This flimsy piece had worked on stage, and for the movie Marilyn was going to play opposite Laurence Olivier (and be directed by him) in what would be called The Prince and the Showgirl. She hoped it would change everything.

She came to town with Miller, her business partner, Milton Greene, a photographer who had become something of a Svengali to her, her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, and a ton of illusions. The play, the script, and the eventual movie were not very good. Olivier was first amazed and then distraught at her “unprofessionalism”—she was late, she was forgetful of her lines, and she was a mess. So it fell to this kid, Colin, the third assistant director, to look after her, to make sure she was on time and to console her when she was a weepy drunk or holed up in her bed and afraid to face the cameras racking up production money.

Colin was kind, courtly, and unthreatening, and close enough to being a boy still to persuade Marilyn of trust. But he was well-trained too, as the son of the British art historian, Kenneth Clark, who may have been planning his television series, Civilization, at the time. The two of them had a sweet week of 1956-type romance. I don’t think they were lovers, but they were surely in love and regarded as such by everyone else—Olivier included—as an item, not to be approved of, but not to be disturbed if there was any chance of getting the damned film finished. So Colin helped Monroe deliver, and Eddie Redmayne surely gives Michelle Williams the space for her performance. I know Williams is a lot smarter and more professional than Monroe ever was. Still, the film exists in the awed way Redmayne looks at her and cherishes her, and that’s how the odd, petrified but manipulative Marilyn Monroe flowers.

Clark wrote two books about the experience, and this picture has made a script from them by Adrian Hodges, which Curtis directs. He may not be a familiar name, but he will be. In fact, he has outstanding credentials already, having directed episodes of Cranford and a British TV mini-series, adapted from a Patrick Hamilton novel, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (2005). He has been a television director, which means he is efficient, self-effacing, at ease with talk and actors, and plainly the force that shaped this venture. I’m sure it will have happy returns at the box office, and provide pleasure. Then wait for nominations: The competitive field will grow crowded, but My Week feels like this year’s The King’s Speech in that it offers a wry, touching glimpse of high society behind closed doors.

Olivier is a sidebar part, in a way, yet Kenneth Branagh delivers a performance so sly and acute in speech, mannerisms, and cloaked ego that some in Britain will laugh out loud at its fond cheek. Once upon a time, Branagh was hailed as the new Olivier. That hasn’t quite worked out, but it has freed a very skilled character actor and it seems to leave Branagh happier. Part of the irony of the film is that Olivier had clearly fancied his own romantic chances with Marilyn, and had to behold the kid’s success with hushed, rueful respect.

Then there’s Marilyn. The best thing to say about Michelle Williams is that she lets us see a very ordinary, silly, nervous girl, who could take simple pleasures and be enriched by them, as if making up for all those parts of life she had never known, let alone enjoyed. There is a lengthy scene where she and Colin go out in the country for the day. They go skinny-dipping, and there’s an unquestioned erotic charge, yet they seem like 1956 teenagers, not quite brave or knowing enough to go all the way in their raptures.

There are hints in the film of other Marilyns—devious, unkind, and even crazy. At the least, there was a net she threw over everyone—that she might be rescued. She was one of those few people who tried to be available for everyone and all their fantasies. That’s what wore her out, I suppose. I never felt she was or was going to be a great actress, but that may have been because the need to pretend meant so much to her emotionally that it was beyond control. Michelle Williams is not as beautiful or glowing as Marilyn—she knows it—but we never notice that, especially with the clever, stylish book-ends to the movie that show her doing a nightclub song-and-dance act. She was at her best in stills or singing. Williams approaches the role rather from a side-entrance: She has the moves and the gestures down so well that by the time we look at the face we are ready to cry out, “Oh, yes, it’s her—it’s Marilyn! I know her!”

We don’t; we didn’t; and I doubt she knew herself. She was more complicated than the film, and probably a lot more unpleasant. But this may be the most tender tribute Marilyn has had in fifty years of being a legend. It’s a rich performance, and I’ll guess the Academy feels Michelle Williams is ready for the gold man. Marilyn might have wept for joy, and envy. This is the best performance she never gave.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder