Marilyn Monroe: blonde ambition
November 24, 2011 | By:
A new film portrays the actress on a visit to England when her star was rising. And it could elevate Michelle Williams to Oscar status, says Michael Prodger

Bringing glamour to a dingy Britain: Monroe as chanelled by Williams

Colin Clark was a filmmaker with a noted appreciation of the female (and occasionally male) form – an eye for beauty inherited from his father, art historian Lord Clark of Civilisation. Colin’s first job on leaving university in 1956 was as third assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier alongside Marilyn Monroe.

Forty years later, Clark wrote a book and diaries about the experience and the time he spent squiring Monroe around England when her new husband, Arthur Miller, took a week out of their honeymoon to visit Paris. These have now been filmed as My Week With Marilyn.

There is a whiff of The King’s Speech about the subfusc period feel and lack of overt drama in the plot. But the film boasts a cast and a half: Michelle Williams as Marilyn is the focus but then there’s Kenneth Branagh as Olivier and the mobile-mouthed Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

Outside the principals, there are parts for Judi Dench and Emma Watson, Derek Jacobi and Simon Russell Beale, Dominic Cooper and Julia Ormond. It’s both a casting director’s dream list and an advertisement for British Acting. If it hadn’t cost $10 million to make, one might suspect it of being something to do with the Cultural Olympiad.

The idea of the film is that it offers a glimpse of the Marilyn behind the film star – all vulnerable, insecure, driven, etc – as it follows her off-duty and away from the gaze of both husband and entourage. Clark introduces her to the English countryside and in his company she gradually lets slip the story of her life as Norma Jean Mortensen, and how she has been used by almost every man she has come across.

It’s an old tale of innocence menaced, except that she is a willing participant in her own life. The film is part comedy of manners as Hollywood collides with parochial Britain, part biopic (Clark’s more than Monroe’s). It aims for bittersweetness and, needless to say, Clark falls for Marilyn rather more than he should.

Grouches are already suggesting that the film is really just an Oscar vehicle for Williams, who was previously best known as Heath Ledger’s one-time squeeze. But while it may not attain profundity it does offer a welcome alternative to hammy Downton Abbey as a showcase for ensemble acting.

The film at the heart of this film, The Prince and the Showgirl, did nothing for the reputations of either Olivier or Monroe but it was a staging post for both of them. Olivier went on to regenerate his career as Archie Rice in The Entertainer, and Some Like it Hot was Monroe’s next project. My Week With Marilyn may be essentially a pleasant diversion but it might also give Williams – and Redmayne in particular – the same sort of career lift.