My Week with Marilyn belongs to that dwindling brand of screen entertainment that will never completely die out as long as there are viewers whose main cinematic occupation is looking back on the good old days, "when movies were movies." You'll recognize the demographic if you've ever gone to a Rob Marshall pic in an urban theater on a Sunday afternoon and taken a good look around.
A subset of the Coffee Table Film genre, this particular kind of movie pops up like dandelions at certain times of the year, especially the winter holiday season, as a counter-programming alternative to, well, practically everything. "Practically everything" because the genre to which My Week with Marilyn belongs — what shall we call it: Ghosts of Glamour? or maybe: Yesterdays? — exists solely in reaction to 98 percent of contemporary popular big-screen fare.
No giant robots, shape-shifting brain teasers, disturbing horror motifs, or four-letter words; no irreverent laughs, gratuitous nudity, uncouth raunchiness, or rude noises for this crowd. It yearns for fluffy, reassuring, cotton-candy, sanitized, middle-brow love stories with a little song and dance, along the lines popularized by the pre-1980s Hollywood studios, and especially the stars that went with them: Judy Garland, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, and of course Marilyn Monroe, the putative subject of Simon Curtis' nostalgic bromide about a movie shoot in England, circa 1956.
As Colin Clark's memoir The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me would have it, the production of Laurence Olivier's comic romance The Prince and the Showgirl has set up at Shepperton Studios, with Olivier directing and starring opposite Monroe. It's the story of a Central European nobleman becoming infatuated with a naïve American nightclub performer, and there's some real-life bleed-in: Olivier (played by Kenneth Branagh) has his doubts about glamour-girl Marilyn's (Michelle Williams) ability to carry off the role. Can she even remember her lines? Already at this stage of her career, her personal life is a mess. This is seen through the eyes of young Colin (Eddie Redmayne), a star-struck Oxford graduate who wangles a lowly third-assistant-director job on the film-within-the-film, the better to observe Olivier's imperiousness, and to fall in love with Ms. Monroe. Naturally.
The first thing anyone — even someone who yawns at the prospect of another flossy backstage fan-fest — wants to know is: Does Michelle Williams do a decent Marilyn Monroe? She does. In fact she inhabits the legend so completely we forget we're watching an imitation. Williams has a sure feel for Monroe's vaunted shy, off-screen vulnerability. Williams is a practiced hand at conveying insecurity, à la Wendy and Lucy and Blue Valentine, and her breathy singing ("We're Having a Heat Wave") maintains the mood. Seems Marilyn, too, has her doubts about whether she can handle the demanding Olivier and live up to her celebrity outside the Tinseltown cocoon. Massive insecurity meets towering ego, with a few ripe hangers-on for good measure — Dougray Scott as MM's playwright husband, hapless Arthur Miller ("She's devouring me"); Julia Ormond stretching it a bit as actress Vivian Leigh, Olivier's wife; and Zoë Wanamaker as Marilyn's owlish acting coach, the vigilant gatekeeper.
Branagh is a tad too chubby and professorial to physically evoke Sir Larry, his striking vocal imitation notwithstanding. This sort of movie depends on the willing suspense of disbelief, and the "real" Olivier is as close as the nearest hand-held device. Basically, Williams captures her subject's charm while Branagh does not. Meanwhile, professional pants-wetter Redmayne (Savage Grace, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) essentially runs through the same drill as Zac Efron in Me and Orson Welles — the awed, juvenile outsider catching a rare, candid glimpse of the immortals, then going home to write a book about it. There have been entirely too many scenarios like this.
British director Curtis, who has worked almost entirely in TV to this point, handles the actors and the material (the screenplay was adapted by Adrian Hodges) with a dutiful dullness that clings to the movie like lint. Despite Williams' genuinely touching neediness, Branagh's studious diagram of haughty Sir Larry, and a general sense of grim, forced camaraderie, My Week with Marilyn seems to last a month. Its taken-for-granted target audience should feel manipulated enough to rebel against such obvious Weinstein Co. Oscar bait. Monroe, Olivier, and their doting fans all deserve better.