As admirers flock to her side during an impromptu visit to Windsor Castle, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) turns to her companion—the aspiring filmmaker Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who’s become both a tour guide and a confidant—and asks a cryptic question: “Should I be her?” What happens next clears up her meaning. Feigning surprise as she smiles and strikes flirtatious poses, Williams stops being Marilyn Monroe, the actress who’s struggled with incapacitating doubt for the last hour, and becomes Marilyn Monroe, the icon.
The transformation happens so quickly, it’s almost eerie, but really no eerier than any other moment when Williams is onscreen in My Week With Marilyn, based on the memoirs Clark published about his time working as third assistant director under Laurence Olivier (played, inevitably, by Kenneth Branagh) during the making of The Prince And The Showgirl in 1956. The film begins as a sharply observed movie-movie, detailing the legwork needed just to transport a star of Monroe’s magnitude from the U.S. to England, including some Red Scare-related hold-ups concerning her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and the demands of an entourage that includes a sly, blunt press agent (Toby Jones), a tough business partner (Dominic Cooper, as photographer Milton Greene), and acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), who’s seldom far from Monroe’s side, and always ready to shoot a withering glance at anyone she perceives as getting in the way of her charge’s preparations.
All of them are motivated by a desire to protect Monroe, but it’s hard to protect someone seemingly unfit to live in the world. By the time Monroe made The Prince And The Showgirl, she’d already developed a reputation for being difficult. Here, Williams plays Monroe as a woman in near-constant agony, ready to bolt from the set like a frightened fawn, and kept from retreating into the solace of sleep and pills only by Strasberg’s insistence and an almost cult-like devotion to Method acting. (In some of the film’s best moments, she becomes an unwitting pawn between then-emerging Method and the classical approach favored by Branagh’s Olivier.) It’s all compellingly staged, with Williams providing the dark, unknowable mystery at the heart of the piece. How could someone so frail and terrified at the mere thought of acting in front of the camera become the biggest movie star in the world? And how could someone so unknowable become so familiar?
Then the film makes the mistake of trying to answer these questions. The more time Clark spends with Monroe, and the more often the film has her slurring references to her troubled past that explain her current state, the deeper everything plunges into prestige-biopic predictability, complete with lush photography, a swelling score, heaps of nostalgic wistfulness, and a terrific-but-brief Judi Dench performance. It doesn’t help that the My half of the My Week With Marilyn equation doesn’t bring much to the film. Where Williams plays an enigma, Redmayne plays a cipher, defined largely by a can-do attitude, and given little to do beyond simply being in the presence of greatness, apart from a few scenes of tentative romance with a costume girl played by Emma Watson. Then again, maybe it’s fitting that Williams’ performance transcends the predictable film My Week With Marilyn becomes: Hers is a Marilyn seen by all, but always fading away.