In 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to Britain to make a movie at Pinewood Studios with Laurence Olivier. This was the tense and ill-fated light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, scripted by Terence Rattigan, a film that became a legend for the lack of chemistry between its insecure and incompatible stars. One was a sexy, feminine, sensual and mercurial diva. The other would go on to make Some Like It Hot.
The story is told – or part of it – in this intensely enjoyable, entirely insubstantial movie featuring glorious performances from Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Williams as Olivier and Monroe, participants in a love triangle of two stars and a nobody. The whole thing is seen from the standpoint of the film’s star-struck third assistant director, Colin Clark, son of the great art historian Kenneth, and younger brother of the notorious Tory MP Alan. The movie-mad youngster had wangled a job in Olivier’s production office, been hired as a dogsbody on the movie, and something in this pretty ingénu caught the eye of Marilyn herself. With her genius for enslaving dazzled men to a courtier’s life of gallantry and self-abasement, she made him her confidant and helpmeet. In 1995, Clark published his diaries from that time, but then in 2000, landing a deferred dramatic punch, published a further memoir – on which this film is based – revealing an intimate, romantic week alone with Marilyn when her husband Arthur Miller had gone away. Of course, he fell hard for the bewitching star.
Was Clark on oath with all the details? And could it actually have been his closet gay streak – not mentioned in this film – which Marilyn sensed more shrewdly than Colin himself, and which made her feel safe around him? Maybe. Either way, it is a beguiling adventure. Poor Colin, out of his league and out of his depth.
Eddie Redmayne does a very good job as Colin, but the scene is utterly stolen from him in various ways by the two above-the-title players. Branagh is tremendous as Olivier: this is a part he was born to play. It’s a marvel to see the corners of his mouth extend outwards, in a grimace of distaste, and his eyes become dead black discs, like the eyes of a diamondback rattlesnake preparing to digest a large mammal. The Kenny/Larry combination results in a nuclear fission of camp-theatricality. It is a complete joy to see Branagh’s Olivier erupt in queeny frustration at Marilyn’s lateness, space-cadet vagueness, and preposterous Method acting indulgence. He sometimes appears to be channelling the older and more sinister Olivier of Marathon Man, a movie in which the great man was again paired with a Method performer. But Branagh revives Olivier with wit, intelligence and charm.
However, in art as in life, Olivier’s spotlight is taken away by Marilyn, played terrifically well by Williams: this is a figure she recreates, not by hamming up the pouty lips and breathiness, but the scared and brimming eyes, wide with unshed tears – terrified and angered by the thought of another explosion of temper from “Sir Olivier”. She is childlike and yet always aware at some unconscious, almost physiological level of how she is shaping and controlling the situation. Olivier is furious at the continued presence of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), but Marilyn’s key strategic victory comes when Sybil Thorndike, played with robust wit by Judi Dench, sides with Marilyn in an argument and tells Larry not to be a bully in front of the entire crew: a betrayal that sours him permanently. And then Marilyn, to Olivier’s bemusement and vague resentment, ups her game while capriciously taking up Colin as her temporary favourite.
Simon Curtis’s film shows how sexual intrigue is such a compulsion on a film set that it must always find an outlet somewhere, somehow. Everyone might have expected a sexy spark between Olivier and Monroe but it was not to be because they were both so needy, both so used to adoration. So the sexiness is displaced on to the hapless Colin himself; he is the lightning conductor. The film set is the perfect place for an intense, illusory affair: the idea that a sexual fling “doesn’t count on location” is now an industry truism, because it is a world where the rules of the boring outside world are suspended. I was reminded of Truffaut’s Day for Night, where the business of filming is itself madly sexy.
As for Clark himself, blinded by the powerful Klieg light of Marilyn’s sexy celebrity, did he misremember or misinterpret their week together, making that historically dire film? Not necessarily. But it was clearly the greatest moment of his life, which occurred at a time when stars, however surrounded by courtiers, could still have these serendipitous “morganatic” meetings with ordinary mortals. My Week With Marilyn is light fare: it doesn’t pretend to offer any great insight, but it offers a great deal of pleasure and fun, and an unpretentious homage to a terrible British movie that somehow, behind the scenes, generated very tender almost-love story.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian