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Very Marilyn details bridge performance gaps

Michelle Williams shines brightly in her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

The Weinstein Co.

Michelle Williams shines brightly in her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

My Week With Marilyn (R) (99 min.) — Michelle Williams doesn't much resemble Marilyn Monroe in face or figure, but she nails the screen icon's girlish anxiety in Simon Curtis' debut film. Details have been disputed, but the story, as told from Colin Clark's firsthand accounts, presents Monroe at the peak of her popularity, on the cusp of an eventually tragic fall.

Clark (Eddie Redmayne) was a starstruck young Englishman in 1956, eager to "join the circus" of making movies after none other than Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) suggests he may have an opening. Olivier's new project is titled The Sleeping Prince (later The Prince and the Showgirl), co-starring Monroe, whose spell on Olivier quickly wears off with her unreliability and insistence upon method acting techniques.

Clark becomes her confidante and platonic boyfriend when Monroe feels inferior, or the adulation she inspires in public becomes too much to bear. She's married to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), but even when Monroe and Clark kiss, there's nothing illicit about it. She's an insecure child in a woman's body. Anything making her happy even for a moment is therapeutic.

Aside from amusing scenes of on-set tension when Monroe flubs lines or arrives late, Curtis focuses on Monroe's darker side, disguised in an instant with a shoulder dip and a shimmy. There are no revelations here, Monroe's sparkle and insecurities are so well-documented. Familiarity hinders Williams at the outset until you realize she can't impersonate Monroe, so an impression must do.

She does well with Monroe's breathy voice and childish mood swings, always aware of the impact she has upon men. Nobody mentions Norma Jean Baker, yet that's who Williams is actually playing, the small-town girl toting a lot of baggage to the big time. At one point, as a crowd gathers she asks Clark: "Should I be her?" Without waiting for an answer, Norma Jean becomes Marilyn, striking poses and blowing kisses. It's a duality we already know is sad; this movie makes sadness observable.

Curtis wisely compensates for Williams' lacking resemblance to Monroe by placing his star in poses and clothes that are immediately recognizable from photographs. Silent, biographical touches like the sleeping pills and James Joyce novel on Monroe's nightstand help bridge whatever gaps the performance leaves.

This is a slight movie, but it's Williams' all the way (possibly to an Oscar nod) while the rest of the cast supports her well. Branagh has always seemed like Olivier 2.0, an immense talent whose ego and inclination to ham it up get in the way. He makes fine use of that image here. Redmayne is a suitably awkward gentleman, and Judi Dench adds illustrious strokes as another Dame, Sybil Thorndike, taking a grand-maternal shine to Monroe. (BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg; West Shore 14 in Tampa)

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

Very Marilyn details bridge performance gaps 11/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 3:30am]
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