The last three movies I’ve seen were about movies. As is The Artist, which I hope
to see next. I came to this realization walking out of a showing of My Week with Marilyn the other day, not long after having seen Hugo and The Muppets.

Williams as Marilyn sitting at vanity, its mirror surrounded by bulbs

While the Muppets actually put on a telethon in The Muppets, and the film’s cornerstone reference is TV’s The Muppet Show rather than the 1979 Muppet Movie, it’s about movies in the way the characters make metatextual references to being in a movie.

Hugo could be said to be a movie about the moviegoing experience by virtue of the
way in which it takes full advantage of the medium of film — the 3D process in particular. Of course, Hugo is also about movies themselves in the very literal fact of its plot involving silent-film auteur Georges Méliès. The scenes of Méliès and company producing his early-1900s fantasias is a highlight of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, as
is the opportunity to see actual clips from cinematic classics featuring Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin rendered in Hugo’s surprisingly thoughtful 3D.

A film set and screening room at the UK’s Pinewood Studios are among the primary backdrops of My Week with Marilyn. Unlike Hugo’s flashbacks (within a fictional tale itself set 80 years ago) or the winking way in which The Muppets is sort-of a movie both about and made by the very characters it stars, the re-created scenes we get of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl are part of Week’s far more straightforward narrative. There is some recursive self-reference at the end, as the brief typewritten codas familiar from historical films include mention that Colin Clark, to whose “week with Marilyn” the title refers, went on to make documentaries and pen the memoirs The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me and My Week with Marilyn — on which the very film telling us this, Eddie Redmayne playing Clark, was based.

I reviewed Hugo last week. The Muppets — which before Hugo was easily my favorite movie of the year, despite niggling flaws — is still forthcoming. Here are my musings on the third of the three:

'My Week with Marilyn' poster featuring close-up of Williams as Monroe giving sultry look
Poster and screencaps © 2011 The Weinstein Company.

My Week with Marilyn is certainly not a bad movie, but it had two competing distractions for me that — together with its rather thin story — kept it from being more than a lark.

One was the perhaps inevitable result of famous people portraying other famous people. I stand by what I said in my Hugo review about the magic of a great movie — great acting, on this point, particularly, as well as makeup and costuming — having the power to make us believe that faces we know from elsewhere belong only to the characters on screen for the duration, and I do think that this illusion can be held even when those characters are historical figures or other celebrities. Michelle Williams’ embodiment of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn is actually a prime example. The film overall, though, comes off as something of a parlor game. Look! Kenneth Branagh is playing Laurence Olivier! Who’s that as Arthur Miller? Ooh... Judi Dench! Derek Jacobi! Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh — I haven’t seen her for ages... Whoa! The wardrobe assistant is Hermione Granger!

Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in sunglasses

That last one is patently unfair; I know Emma Watson’s name, and of course she’s allowed to take other roles. A couple behind me, however, whispered almost exactly that. In films that really suck you in, the actor and the setting and the whole of it all totally overcome the artifice (or revel in it — or, like Hugo, somehow do both); that’s the point of watching a film — and of going to the movies in particular. My Week with Marilyn felt more like an exercise in capturing behind-the-scenes escapades, albeit one in which the participants are having a grand time, than it did an engaging story. It might’ve been trying too hard to capture magic to actually make any, Williams’ performance aside.

Dougray Scott — the guy who was going to be Wolverine before Hugh Jackman (which I’m sure is exactly how he likes to be referenced, right after “the guy who was Susan’s insufferable British boyfriend back when people still watched Desperate Housewives”) — is who’s playing Arthur Miller, by the way, and although his persona is rather affected he at least disappears into it in a way that Toby Jones — the guy who was Truman Capote in the film about Capote writing In Cold Blood that wasn’t the one that starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman — did not disappear into his role thanks to one of those put-on American accents that sounds exactly like a put-on American accent.

The other distraction for me was that even (if not especially) with the primary players here, Marilyn Monroe chief among them, having passed on, it just felt a bit unseemly to have a movie made about someone’s personal recollections of time spent with her. I realize that My Week with Marilyn is far from the only book or movie produced about the enigmatic Monroe, who died almost a decade before I was born and so is only known to me through stories. Colin Clark doesn’t come off as entirely saintly in Adrian Hodges’ screenplay, directed by Simon Curtis and based on Clark’s after-the-fact production diaries, but whether the former Norma Jean Dougherty was the perpetrator or victim — or both — of the Marilyn Monroe mythology in her private as well as public lives, I’m not sure that translating time spent with her privately into art-cum-gossip for public consumption is, for lack of a better word, cool.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark, embracing

Like I said above, Michelle Williams is captivating in her fluid inscrutability as Marilyn. Williams is one of the most versatile actors working today, as anyone who’s seen Blue Valentine can tell you, able to move from hardened to vulnerable and back before you’ve even noticed. Her performance in My Week with Marilyn could seem disjointed if Monroe weren’t so famously mercurial, as she comes off as shy and bold, welcoming attention and shunning the spotlight, manipulative and terminally codependent in repeat succession with no hint of which swing of the pendulum is ultimately at her core. I’d say that the film is worth a look for Williams’ embodiment of her role alone, with the vague sense that it’s telling tales out of school a caveat or an added recommendation depending on your disposition.

Related: Paris Review Ghosts in the Machine Silent Treatment

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