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'My Week with Marilyn': Go not for Monroe, but for Williams and Branagh

Michelle Williams captures Marilyn Monroe's sexiness and vulnerability, if not her body.
Michelle Williams captures Marilyn Monroe's sexiness and vulnerability, if not her body.

Michelle Williams doesn't so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her in the entertaining new bio-drama My Week With Marilyn. She doesn't have Monroe's overripe figure, Kewpie doll cheeks or 'C'mere and kiss me' lips. There's va-va without the voom.

But in scene after scene, Williams "gets" Monroe — the sex appeal, the vulnerability, the sense of fear of discovery behind all that out-there sexual bravado. When she's singing about starting a Heat Wave by "making my seat wave," friends, you will believe it.

My Week is based on a memoir by Colin Clark, an upper-class lad who used family connections to land a go-fer job on the set of Sir Laurence Olivier's film, The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1956 comedy that co-starred Monroe, then at the height of her fame. He was 23, Clark (Eddie Redmayne) narrates, and "I wanted to be a part of their world."

Clark ingratiates himself with Olivier, played with a flint-edged gleam by Kenneth Branagh. Olivier turns on the charm, puts on his most gracious face and fumes fumes fumes as his new co-star upstages him and keeps one and all waiting, on the set, while she works through her moods and is consoled by her enabling acting coach, Paula Strasberg (the wonderful Zoe Wanamaker). Clark is willing to endure Olivier barking "Boy!" at him just for the chance to be near Monroe.

Next thing he knows, he has been brought in as third assistant director. Over the course of the film's production, Colin Clark became the go-to intermediary in various Brits' dealings with the mercurial, difficult and neurotic blonde bombshell.

British TV director Simon Curtis (Cranford) and screenwriter Adrian Hodges concoct a fascinating milieu that gives us a minor revision of Monroe's reputation. Every Brit Monroe encounters, on set and off, is just as charming and accommodating as can be. Co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) showers her with compliments, despite her poor showing, late all the time, blown scenes, botched lines. Brits bitingly play supporting figures from her life — agents and managers (Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper) and husband (Dougray Scott is playwright Arthur Miller).

The clash of acting styles — Olivier's "The character is on the page" vs. The Method, is nicely evoked.

But if you've read any biography of Lord Larry and his Blanche Dubois wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), you'll be scratching your head at his patience and her sanity. Neither seems accurate, although Olivier needed Monroe much more than she needed him and was most certainly solicitous, no matter how much he resented this.

The tale traipses down the primrose path to "trite" as it sets Clark up for a romance with the lovely wardrobe girl, played by Emma Watson with a self-confidence that all those Harry Potter pictures must have given her. The seamstress will be forgotten as Clark stumbles deeper into the crush that he develops on Monroe and is overcome by the need, shared by so many men, to try and save her from all this.

But Branagh and Williams are worth the price of admission, the former "wunderkind" of British stage and screen having a go at the pretentious, plummy Olivier, who referred to movies as "MO-see-un pictures," whenever he felt the need to toy with a few syllables.

And Williams, re-creating a few of Monroe's magical moments from that movie, works the "dumb blonde" thing just the way Monroe did on the scene — "Gee Mr. Sir," she says, not certain how to address the knighted Olivier, "I could listen to your accent all day."

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