My Week With Marilyn – Film Review

A Film by Simon Curtis
Review by Thomas W. Campbell

I moderated a Q and A with Harvey Weinstein after the NBR screening of Marilyn   – it was a far ranging and quite energetic discussion.

Originally published on December 23rd, 2011 on the website of The National Board of Review. 

My Week With Marilyn, directed by Simon Curtis (Cranford, A Short Stay In Switzerland), is the possibly fictional but entirely moving story of a young British man from good society who meets, and falls in love (maybe not in that order) with the woman behind the great American 1950’s icon of sex and pleasure. It’s a story that works best as fantasy yet is based on two books by Colin Clark that recount the experience – the first (The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, 1995) a recounting of the pretty obviously disastrous pairing of Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in the cinematic restaging of The Prince and the Showgirl and the other a further exploration of the event that focused on a special week with Monroe (My Week with Marilyn, 2000). Although he became a successful filmmaker of the arts Clark lived beneath the shadow of his father (Sir Kenneth Clark) a famous art historian and his younger brother, the conservative politician Alan Clark. Published two years before his death, My Week With Marilyn offered an experience unique enough to draw the spotlight from politics and art and shine it directly on him (and Marilyn).

My Week With Marilyn is brisk, witty, a bit sad and filled with excellent actors having a great deal of fun (even when they are spending most of their time worrying about Marilyn’s emotional instability). It is shot well, set in many of the original locations in and around Pinewood Studios, and edited in a snappy way that highlights the comic and keeps the story moving. Kenneth Branagh portrays Olivier with a flair for the melodramatic, as a man lost in the theater who cannot understand why those around him won’t simply trust the script and do the job. By 1956, when The Prince and the Showgirl was produced, Olivier had made his name as one of the great actors of British theater and expected that he would find that same success on the big screen. But his instincts were old fashioned – whatever he thought he saw in the adaptation of the play to cinema was completely ill suited for his purposes. Watched today the original film feels like a parody of everything bad that can happen to a play when it is brought to the screen – stiff overacting, sets that are obviously studio inventions, stereotypical portrayals of royalty and commoners. The irony was that Monroe brought the project to Olivier, thinking it would work for both of them. Colin Clark’s character says it best to Marilyn in the film: “You’re a movie star who wants to be a great actor, he is a great actor who wants to be a movie star. This film won’t help either of you.” Branagh gives Olivier a sense of desperation that is very likable and quite humanizing. As a director he has been given access to a talent that is pure gold in terms of cinematic value – but he has no idea how to develop the visceral and intuitive skills that Monroe brings to the table. In one agonizing sequence he stops what most likely would have been a wonderful and film enriching performance by insisting that Monroe speak a completely unnecessary word – crushing her performance with every take. It would be as if George Martin, the legendary fifth Beatle who molded their sound with love and patience, decided that they should not write their own songs and that sitars and backward sound loops would be banished from the recording studio. Most deliciously, Olivier finds himself caught between the agony of working on set and the terror of the screening room when his wife, film star Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormand) breaks into tears at the sight of Monroe’s onscreen beauty (and Olivier’s supposed admiration of it) and tells him that she hopes Marilyn makes his life hell.

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My Week With Marilyn – Editing for Comedy

In my review of My Week With Marilyn I called the editing of the film “snappy” and mentioned that it was often cut with comic intent in mind. The best example of this is the sequence that takes place about three and a half minutes into the film that involves Colin Clark’s attempt to convince the gate keeper at Olivier Productions to give him a job. It’s a brilliant example of montage editing that moves briskly and uses a number of editing techniques to heighten comedy and create an appealing sense of energetic movement.

Colin Clark, who comes from a very well endowed family, has just announced his decision to find work in the film business, and his mother’s response, as they walk from the family castle, is that she is “sure” he will soon become a famous director. This sets up the next scene nicely – he immediately runs into the obstacles of reality. Some of the humor comes from the voice over “like every young man I had to make my own way”, delivered as the obviously upper class young man struts into the Oliver production office to present himself. The man he faces, a grim older gentleman who seems determined to cast happiness from his own existence, is firm – there are no jobs. And his immediate response to Colin makes it seem like the young man has a disease – “You’re an actor, aren’t you”. But Colin is determined and returns each majoring to wait out resistance.

Performance and cinematic execution is key to comedy but the glue that really makes it work is the editing. The first meeting concludes with two closeups – Colin asks if he can wait for a job and the Production Executive not only glares back at him (almost at the camera) but half bites his lip in disdain.

The sequence kicks in with the Executive’s scowl. Peppy jazz music, with brass and perky drum hits, accents a serious of quick and efficient shots: A pretty secretary types, Colin sits perfectly frame centered on a large leather sofa nervously adjusting his tie, then a series of jump cuts reveal him moving about the dark wood paneled room, the secretary glancing at him (while the steady rhythm of her typing punctuate the soundtrack), the day passes and the executive finally leaves his office, only to see Colin waiting on the sofa. The montage and typing continue as Colin maneuvers through the street and once again enters the massive room and sits in front of the secretary. The tempo of the editing suggests that something has to give – the pretty secretary looks at him and remarks about his determination – and Clark says that he will do anything to get the job. Cut to a closeup of the secretary as she says, with a twinkle in her eye “anything?”. Before the viewer can wrap one’s mind around the possibilities of her gaze a phone rings off camera and we cut to – Colin at her desk taking the call. It’s a wonderful edit that plays with expectations and gives immediate and comic gratification. The disbelieving reaction shot of the film executive as he comes from the next room to investigate why he is hearing Colin’s voice on the phone keeps the humor flowing. The sequence is capped by the executive’s seemingly impossible request to get Noel Coward’s phone number – a number that is not in the directory. Cut to a reaction of Colin already putting his mind to the task and then a paper appears on the Executive’s desk – it is Colin’s hand presenting the phone number to the surprised executive.

The editing is by Adam Recht, who may have picked up his deft editing touch from years of working in television, and this early sequence establishes a tempo that superbly fits the comic needs of this reminiscence of a story.