True stories are often the strangest ones and sometimes they’re the most beautiful too.
Watching My Week With Marilyn, the touching story of a young man’s brief summer romance with one of the most beautiful women in history, you’re reminded of how completely life-changing moments can happen in real life when you least expect them.
Based on the memoirs of film director Colin Clark, My Week With Marilyn tells the true story of one mad week he spent with the star in 1956 when Monroe was at the height of her fame, and an unexpected summer fling blossomed between the legendary movie star and the humble young Oxford graduate.
Nowadays we usually think of Monroe as the epitome of old Hollywood glamour. She was smart, sexy and self-deprecating, and she was an immensely skilled comic actress too (usually at her own expense).
But Monroe knew better than anyone the effect that her almost supernatural beauty had on people, and it was one of the great frustrations of her all too short life that she rarely -- if ever -- could help them to get over it and see the vulnerable young woman underneath.
The script of My Week With Marilyn is based on Clark’s true account of the magical week he spent alone with the woman who was already the biggest star in the world.
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In total Monroe spent six months on set in England in 1956 filming The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Sir Laurence Olivier, and from the beginning things went far from smoothly between the two titans.
Monroe was constantly late for filming, she had unpredictable mood swings, she often appeared drugged up and woozy, and she couldn’t or wouldn’t take direction from the world’s most celebrated actor and director.
In response to her countless insecurities, Olivier ranted and raved and frequently stormed off the set in exasperation, but even he had to admit it -- when Monroe decided to perform she had the power to take your breath away.
Belfast-born actor Kenneth Branagh, 50, delivers an unexpectedly tender portrayal of Olivier in the film, but he has already been having a banner year as a director. With My Week With Marilyn he is now seriously in the running for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, an opportunity that hasn’t come his way in quite a while.
Earlier this year Branagh's production of the superhero caper Thor was a commercial and critical success, but his poignant turn as Olivier may be the role that wins him greater offers going forward.
Bounding into the pressroom at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Sunday, Branagh’s all smiles and looking decidedly trimmer, like a man who’s discovered a new lease on life in fact. The question is by finally playing Olivier (the man he’s been compared to all his adult life) has he finally put that intimidating ghost to rest?
“I was flattered by all the comparisons but you couldn’t help but fall short,” Branagh tells the Irish Voice.
“Olivier was the world’s most famous and respected actor and he dominated in that position for so long that if you ever remotely went near a part that he had played before you were compared to him. I decided to just be flattered and get on with it.”
In a way, Branagh relates, the film really was a moment to lay that particular ghost to rest by simply tacking it head on, and playing Olivier in a script that took him seriously not only as a performer but also as a person. “That’s how I got over it,” he explains.
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Michelle Williams, 31, who plays Monroe in the new film, has a major challenge to prevent Branagh from stealing every scene the pair appear in out from under her. But as the nervy, self-conscious and unfathomably insecure Monroe, she’s already an attention hog of the first order.
Olivier suspected that Monroe’s diva behavior was a plea for attention, but other’s (including the film’s director Simon Curtis) imply that in fact Monroe really was every bit as damaged and raw as the film illustrates -- she wasn’t looking to be noticed, she was looking to be saved.
But the challenge of bringing Monroe’s complexity to the screen was one thing, becoming a song and dance girl was another, Williams confesses.
“I’m not a singer or a dancer, I haven’t been on stage doing either since I was 10 years old,” Williams tells the Irish Voice.
“Because of that I really felt -- when I was able to put the nerves aside -- a tremendous outpouring of joy.I felt like a little girl whose dreams came true for the first time. And I was able to tap into what I imagine made Marilyn Monroe so luminous in her singing and dancing numbers.
“When you’re in that state your critical mind has to turn off, there’s no room for it. You’re remembering steps and lyrics. That’s what makes those performances of her so magical. She’s not thinking.
“Like everything else in this movie it all took a tremendous amount of preparation. I really started at the very beginning and made my mistakes along the way. And I decided not to be hard on myself about those, but instead realize they were part of the process.”
Clearly Academy Award winning producers David Parfitt and Harvey Weinstein are banking that My Week With Marilyn will turn into another juggernaut like Shakespeare In Love or The King’s Speech – and they’re probably right.
My Week With Marilyn is exactly the kind of Oscar bait the Academy loves -- it’s British, it has Judi Dench, Branagh gives a bravura performance, the costumes and the period detail are well done and it brings you close to Monroe’s personal tragedy without quite tipping over the edge.
If you love Marilyn Monroe you’ll almost certainly enjoy the movie. Williams’s impersonation is particularly good at capturing Monroe’s countless insecurities and her emotional torment, but unfortunately she’s not quite the comic talent that Monroe was.
Marilyn clearly understood she was sexy enough to make fun of her own image without any risk of ever falling flat on her face, but for Williams this is a steeper climb because the truth is she’s just not as skilled a comedienne. That gulf between the two actresses turns out to be an important one and it’s never breached.
Williams is the age now that Marilyn was when she filmed The Prince and the Showgirl. Like Monroe she has known real tragedy (Heath Ledger, her partner in both life and art, was found dead from an apparent drugs overdose in 2008 – an awful parallel with Monroe’s own story).
Like Monroe in person Williams looks flinty and uncomfortable in her own skin, but she also has Monroe’s megawatt charisma and when she smiles it’s a dazzler.
You’ll come away from My Week With Marilyn with a deeper appreciation of both Williams and Monroe’s acting talents, which in the latter case went far beyond filling a curvaceous dress.