By Salomon Rogberg.
The other day I read in one of Sweden’s largest daily newspapers Dagens Nyheter, that biopics were on the rise. Maybe the critic was right. Both Margaret Thatcher, who was the British prime minister between the years 1979 to 1990, and J Edgar Hoover, the first director of FBI, have appeared on the movie screens alongside Marilyn Monroe. But unlike the The Iron Lady (2011), with the charismatic and skilled actress Meryl Streep, and J. Edgar (2011) featuring DiCaprio, My Week with Marilyn (2011) hasn’t produced much ‘talk about town’.
Despite that only 36,000 people have seen the film since its release in January—which in Swedish terms means it’s doing okay, but not great—it will be running for a while longer, since Michelle Williams has been Oscar nominated for best Actress in a Leading Role.
My week with Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis, is loosely based on the factual story of the affluent writer and director Colin Clark, who met Marilyn during the film-shoot of the romantic comedy The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), directed and starring Sir Laurence Olivier.
It all starts when the recently graduated Colin (Eddie Redmayne) enthusiastically sets out to join the film world, or ‘circus.’ Much like Colin’s family, who don’t seem to notice him leaving, Colin is unaware of what is brewing on the horizon. Once in London, after stubbornly sitting outside the film producer’s office for several hours, pleading for a job, Colin is (due to his family connections) at last given work as the third assistant director on the production of The Prince and the Showgirl.
The film shoot turns out to be filled with complications. Both Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) fight emotional crisis’ that interferes with their professional work as actors and director. Colin on the other hand, is happier with the film-shoot situation, and becomes infatuated with Marilyn, who takes a liking to him.
Whilst Marilyn is presented as gloriously seductive, ditzy-blonde and unconfident, mixed with a bag of problems for which she swallows pills with booze, to reduce her anxiety and stage fright, Colin is embarrassingly depicted as a sweet, and charming man set on a coming of age journey.
Fittingly, Marilyn’s husband, the great writer and playwright Arthur Miller, can’t stand her insecurities and paranoia, and he tells Laurence Olivier before going back to New York that she’s devouring him, making him unable to work. This allows Colin to ‘get a foot in,’ and voila!, he spends a week with Monroe.
My Week with Marilyn is classified as an independent film (produced outside the big studios.) Evidently the producers thought that another film about Monroe would bring people to the cinemas. And so did the Swedish distributers, Scanbox Entertainment, who have said that they chose to distribute My Week with Marilynbecause it’s an interesting story about an interesting woman.
Like the producers and distributors, I was optimistic about another Marilyn film, and hoped the movie would present something new or intriguing about her life. But unfortunately this was not the case. Nothing new was presented about the charismatic, turbulent and sad life of the most famous and iconic American women of the 20th century. Sure, there were new things for the younger generation like an updated cinematography and a newish story with contemporary actors, but for me this was not enough.
The film’s strong side is Branagh’s dour presence, and Williams’ skilled performance that bares a close resemblance to how the real Marilyn appears on film. There are also enjoyable parts that stirs up ideas – thoughts that maybe the film doesn’t explicitly itself bring up in the story or that’s told through the cinematography, but that is nevertheless relevant to the themes and ideas that the movie lightly skims over.
For instance the film starts and finishes with projected films and images of Marilyn, which makes you think about the film as a meta-film, as a comment on film as an illusion. Conveniently, the persona of Marilyn was as much an illusion, a constructed image, as a film is real. Her name was for example not Marilyn Monroe.
The conflict that Marilyn experiences in this movie is about identity, and about how she finds it difficult to perform her role in the The Prince and the Showgirl, as well as performing the image of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn is trapped in the image she and the world has constructed, an image she’s continually ‘forced’ to reassert. This becomes a big problem for her and she continually needs someone to boost her confidence. At the same time she’s scared out of her mind that this very person will see who she really is, and leave her like so many previous people have done.
This conflict that Marilyn experiences is not properly addressed in the film, and the reason why it becomes a mediocre movie. Instead of representing Marilyn and the events surrounding her life in a critical and investigative way, the camera happily takes pleasure in rolling over Michelle Williams’ body. It occupies Colin’s perspective, gazes and strays on her succulent shape and form, her sweet endearing smile and eyes.
The movie reaffirms the image Marilyn had to live up to. It never addresses issues like voyeurism or the male gaze, or how we mythologize or turn people into images. This in effect keeps the viewer, like all the characters in the film, from asking who Marilyn really was as a real person. Sure she wasn’t just like you and me. Or maybe she was.
Salomon Rogberg is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.