My Week With Marilyn - Eddie Redmayne with Dougray Scott and Michelle Williams
Narrator Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) with newlyweds Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) as they arrive in England © 2011 The Weinstein Company

At the risk of sounding like a thoughtless cad, the glaringly obvious problem with this project is that star Michelle Williams is no Marilyn Monroe. She doesn’t have Monroe’s lovely face, pretty pout, sex-goddess body or that special seductive something in the way she moved. In a film where more than one awestruck observer feels compelled to remark upon Monroe’s irresistible beauty, the object of their adoration has to be sufficiently impressive to deserve such praise. Movies are, after all, a visual medium.

The character also needs to give off enough star quality to dazzle the hoi polloi when she appears in public. But if Williams-as-Monroe strolled into a pub, it’s hard to believe many heads would turn; she simply isn’t that exceptional. The sight of boys swarming to bask in her presence when she pays a surprise visit to the Eton boarding school is equally odd. The woman we see looks more like she could be one of their reasonably attractive visiting mums than a legendary Hollywood some-like-it-hottie.

It would be nice to report that Williams compensates by turning in a performance that captures Monroe’s troubled essence, but no. She fails to convey either Monroe’s kittenish charm, her smarter-than-she-looks savvy or her wistful melancholy, and all are essential here. The entire point of this story is that Monroe may be self-involved and disrespectfully unreliable, but she’s also appealingly girly and sweetly vulnerable.

(For a much more enjoyable screen portrayal of Monroe, check out Nicolas Roeg’s wonderful 1984 film Insignificance. Actress Theresa Russell perfectly captured Monroe’s breathtaking beauty, breathy babytalk and sorrowful serious side.)

My Week With Marilyn - Emma Watson
Working girl Lucy (Emma Watson) finds it hard to compete with Marilyn Monroe for attention © 2011 The Weinstein Company

My Week With Marilyn is based on the diaries of Colin Clark, the 23-year-old third assistant director during the 1956 filming of The Prince and the Showgirl in London. He got the job through family connections to the movie’s producer/director/star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), whose exasperation at putting up with Monroe is offset by his grudging admiration for her movie-magic vivaciousness. Yet the constantly line-forgetting Monroe we see here never comes to life or even seems fully awake, which doesn’t ring true with reality. Regardless of how difficult the film was to make, Monroe is perky and adorable in the finished real-world version.

Eddie Redmayne is blandly generic as the boyish Clark, who gives off a vague upper-class-twit vibe. Until he manages to become close chums with Monroe through unlikely circumstances, Clark tries making time with costume department staffer Lucy (Emma Watson). Harry Potter fans will be amused when Clark’s attempt to unbutton the former Hermione Granger’s blouse is rebuffed with the line, “Wait a while, crocodile.”

Branagh is good as the teeth-clinchingly testy Olivier. Julia Ormond keeps a stiff upper lip as his then-wife Vivien Leigh, adjudged too old for the film version of the showgirl role she played onstage opposite her husband. And Judi Dench is delightful as the diplomatically gracious actress Sybil Thorndike, who tries making Monroe feel welcome by boosting her low self-esteem.

Whether the events documented in the film actually happened is less important than the fact that they seem so oppressively uninteresting. Monroe mostly mopes around, and seems slightly addled even when she’s supposed to be having fun playing hooky from her responsibilities.

Neither trashy enough for a guilty pleasure nor credible enough to be convincing, My Week With Marilyn nearly gives dead-celebrity exploitation a bad name.

[Rating:2.5 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.