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The first thing you notice is the hips. My Week With Marilyn begins with a performance of “Heat Wave,” and Marilyn Monroe’s silhouette isn’t so much a Coke bottle as it is a deeply undulating sine wave. It’s 1956, and fellas of all ages are watching the star onscreen, their mouths agape or frozen in goofy grins. “I started a heat wave, by letting my seat wave,” the star sings. Indeed.
Monroe is played by Michelle Williams, and for the rest of the film’s 101 minutes, you can’t take your eyes off her. It’s not just her outward allure—enhanced by prosthetic curves and teeth, wig-supplied platinum curls, and perfect ’50s makeup—that transform Williams into Monroe’s virtual double. It’s the character’s innocence, which makes her say such things as, “Oh, phooey!” It’s the high-pitched, nearly breathless voice. But mostly it’s the icon’s devastating self-destructiveness, fueled by a lack of confidence and fear of abandonment so severe they nearly paralyze her. Williams gets it all right, and it’s mesmerizing.
Meanwhile, Monroe attracts both men and women like a magnet, even when she’s pissing them off. My Week With Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis and adapted by Adrian Hodges from books by Colin Clark, follows a week in the production of The Prince and the Showgirl, which Monroe shot in England with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Clark (here portrayed by Eddie Redmayne) was one of those grinning fools at the movie theater, but he then makes a laser-focused attempt to get involved in pictures. He lands a position as third assistant to the director on Prince—and that grin never really wears off. It’s kind of annoying and sometimes downright creepy, but you understand that the kid can’t help it.
The bulk of My Week With Marilyn involves Monroe screwing up—arriving on the set late or not at all, drugging herself into oblivion, freezing when it’s time for her line. She alienates some (mainly her then-husband Arthur Miller, played by Dougray Scott) and irritates others (Olivier, in a fit of pique, remarks, “Trying to teach her how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger!”). But she has her unflaggingly loyal cheerleaders, particularly her acting coach (Zoë Wanamaker), her terribly sweet and stealthily supportive co-star (Judi Dench), and the 23-year-old Clark, whom the 30-year-old Monroe somewhat astonishingly pulls into her world. Even a reporter tells Olivier, “With tits like that, you have to make allowances.”
The Prince and the Showgirl is here described as “the lightest of comedies,” and barring Monroe’s meltdowns, it applies to this film as well. It’s about the bloom of first love; Clark falls head-deep for the star, who skinny-dips with him and invites him to cuddle in bed. (The wardrobe assistant he’s started dating, a horribly wigged Emma Watson, is not amused.) Clark and Marilyn’s scenes together are mostly featherweight, filled with giggles and romping and just the slightest hint that Norma Jeane has actually been playing a character all along. (“Shall I be her?” Monroe asks Clark when they encounter a group of fans.) Ultimately, My Week With Marilyn is an inconsequential but enjoyable confection anchored by Williams’ marvelous performance. The film ends with her singing another song, “That Old Black Magic.” And you realize you’ve been under her spell the entire time.