Michelle Williams had an incredibly risky task in front of her when she was cast to portray Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis’s film about the legendary actress. Not only is Monroe arguably the most iconic actress to have ever appeared on film, but her personal life is shrouded in mystery and many pages of text have been dedicated to psycho-analyzing the prima donna of the silver screen. It was guaranteed that Williams’ performance was going to be scrutinized by critics, film buffs, and Marilyn lovers the world over.
So how did she fare when My Week With Marilyn made its debut at the New York Film Festival? Pretty good, it seems. The responses to Curtis’s film were mostly tepid, but the praise for Williams ranges from mildly appreciative to downright enthusiastic. Several critics said she is guaranteed an Oscar nomination and the overall feeling seems to be that Williams is the best part of the film. The film tells the story of Monroe’s tense interactions with Sir Laurence Olivier during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl through the eyes of a young crew member.
Howard Feinstein of Screen Daily has praise for the entire acting ensemble, but most of it goes to Williams. After calling her a “sure bet for Academy recognition” he goes on to describe her rising star in Hollywood:
Williams isn’t considered royalty in the U.S. film scene, but she’s probably on her way up there. Her casting as Monroe (a role that was supposedly going to Scarlet Johansson) certainly points to a rise in the Hollywood hierarchy. Audiences will come to see her play the actress then considered “the most famous woman in the world.” Most of the time, especially in her own solo renditions of “When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right)” and “That Old Black Magic” (the two songs bookend the film), with nothing and no one around her, she gets it right, while at other times, especially in scenes of the film within the film, she wanders off the mark.
Eric Kohn of indieWIRE disagrees with the praise for Williams because the role she was given was not “meaty” enough. He calls the movie an exercise in style that misses the mark:
The prospects of any actress, even a usually dexterous one like Williams, meeting the expectations of the role while moving beyond them makes for a near impossible task. The first feature from British television director Simon Curtis, “My Week With Marilyn” generally takes the form of a screwball comedy based around Monroe’s constant unwillingness to play by Olivier’s rules by forgetting her lines or dashing off-set in the face of criticism from the director. But the script lands only the most basic laughs, failing to dig into the mystique surrounding its subject. While the movie goes through conventional motions, Williams has little to do save for offering her best Marilyn voice and grin.
The Playlist agrees that the film’s shallowness is its downfall. They compare its depth to a Lifetime Movie and go on to describe why:
For Williams, the challenges are immeasurable. Her interpretation of Monroe is flighty and soft, a romantic dreamer with deep-seated issues behind the glamorous veneer, but the script doesn’t allow her character to go very deep. That screenplay also offers next to no insight into the personality of Monroe that you haven’t read a thousand times – the toll of stardom was too much, she was needy, she had emotional issues, she was a pill addict, etc. Wiliams does a commendable job at impersonating the icon without veering into grotesque pantomime, but it’s not the kind of stunning performance we’ve witnessed from her of late and certainly not her best in recent years. While the Weinstein Company will likely throw all their muscle behind the actress for a Best Actress Oscar nom, based on quality alone, she’s far from a lock (though it’s so pleasingly middle of the road, like “The King’s Speech,” the picture and her performance could therefore end up being a strong contender).
Ronnie Scheib of Variety uses a phrase that is often trucked out during Awards season to describe Williams’ performance: “tour-de-force.” He says it is layered and powerful and makes the film worthwhile:
But the film belongs to Williams, whose tour-de-force turn conflates three Marilyns: the lost, damaged little girl who seeks to escape others’ expectations and return to simpler childhood days; the sexy superstar who impishly poses with a wink in complicity with her public; and the actress playing a pre-scripted part. The genius of the performance lies in the way Williams stresses the interconnectedness of these personalities: The neediness fuels the impudence, the vulnerability turns sexually provocative, and the little girl and sexpot together drive the screen role.
David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter is also enthusiastic about Michelle Williams, but he is less impressed by other performances. He says that Kenneth Branagh’s take on Laurence Olivier is little more than an impersonation:
Branagh takes his cue from one of Olivier’s hammier film turns, windily quoting Prospero while vacillating between pompous eye-rolling and humbled admiration. He does show the odd flicker of life, particularly when Larry’s vanity or petulance reveal themselves. But there’s barely a character beneath the so-so imitation.
Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience says there is a lot to like about My Week With Marilyn in spite of his C+ grade. He says that all the performers hit their marks:
There’s a lot that’s very easy to enjoy about My Week With Marilyn particularly if you, like me, thrill to movies about showbiz. The scenes on set are generally the strongest, as they aren’t overreaching for psychological effect but are closer to the light comedy attempted in the 1957 film. On the set Dame Judi Dench gives texture to peace-keeping Dame Sybil Thorndike, Kenneth Branagh amply rewards his brilliant casting as the fuming, exasperated and vain Sir Laurence Olivier (ink him in to the Best Supporting Actor shorlist) and Michelle Williams beautifully captures Marilyn’s deer in the headlight terror, her blinding self-doubt amplified by paranoia. (Many paranoid people have the sensation that all eyes are on them. In Marilyn’s case this was fact).
My Week With Marilyn will be released in the U.S. on November 4, 2011.
There is not much surprise here that the performances seem to be the only thing getting praised from this movie. Simon Curtis is an established television director, but the transition to film was not seamless despite the elements he had behind him. Expect Michelle Williams to score a Best Actress nomination and Kenneth Branagh is a strong likelihood for Best Supporting Actor. My Week With Marilyn won’t show up in other categories.
Other Fall 2011 Review Round-Ups:
- Venice: George Clooney’s The Ides of March
- Venice: Roman Polanski’s Carnage
- Venice: David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method
- Telluride: Alexander Payne’s The Descendants
- Telluride: Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs
- Venice and Telluride: Steve McQueen’s Shame
- Venice: Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Venice and Telluride: Alps, Butter, and Dark Horse
- Toronto: Bennett Miller’s Moneyball
- Toronto: Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous
- Toronto: Jonathan Levine’s 50/50
- Toronto: Rampart, The Deep Blue Sea, Coriolanus, Take This Waltz