Few would argue that the story behind the making of the 1957 movie The Prince and the Showgirl - the subject of My Week With Marilyn - is far more compelling than that whiff of old lavender in which a Ruritanian royal tries to get jiggy with an American chorine.
"The Prince" was Sir Laurence Olivier, 49, then a middle-aged actor in partial eclipse as a new generation wowed British theater.
"The Showgirl" was Marilyn Monroe, 30, newly wed to playwright Arthur Miller and in the neon sunshine of fame. Olivier, who did double duty as the film's director, was stage-trained, exacting, and resolutely old-school. Monroe, an intuitive performer and budding Method actress, was time-impaired, mercurial, and defiantly new school.
He was chalk, she was cheesecake, and both their marriages (his to Vivien Leigh, who had originated the role of the Showgirl on stage) were on the skids. During the turbulent production of the film, both Leigh and Monroe reported miscarriages.
Michelle Williams is immensely touching as Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, a larky film from Simon Curtis based on the diaries of Colin Clark, a young gofer on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. In Clark's memoir, he is acerbic about the blond bombshell he calls a "mimophant," sensitive as a mimosa where her own feelings are concerned and thick-skinned as an elephant when trampling over the feelings of others.
Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges play it for farce, not so their actors. In sanctifying the chronically unpunctual Monroe and vilifying the punctilious Olivier (amusingly played by Kenneth Branagh), the filmmakers perpetuate the Myth of Misunderstood Marilyn. Their Monroe is the mimosa and Olivier the trampling elephant in this English garden of backstage stories.
Although the filmmakers simplify the antagonists into crudely drawn heroine and villain, Williams and Branagh exhibit moments of surprising depth, suggesting an understanding of the characters more dimensional than the cardboard screenplay.
Williams never defaults to mimicry. Her Monroe doesn't have the breathless whisper and quivering lips/quivering hips quality of the Marilyn impersonators. Her Monroe is a lightbulb on a dimmer, suddenly bright, and just as suddenly, indistinct. Williams suggests Monroe's mood swings in terms of clarity and blurriness of features. Her performance is not an achievement of the makeup department but an imaginative interpretation of an unstable element.
Branagh does a canny impersonation of Olivier's plummy diction and his contempt for his American colleague. The filmmakers have more sympathy for Monroe than for Olivier, who believed that the character could be found on the page of the script, while the actress believed that the character was to be found somewhere inside her.
"Be sexy!" he commands Monroe, crushing the spirit of the actress who believes she is playing a woman, not sex on two legs.
Branagh is wonderful when he cuts loose on a line like, "Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like teaching Urdu to a badger!"
The audience sees the antagonists through the eyes of bright-eyed Clark (Eddie Redmayne), and the film is most effective when Clark can empathize with both. Clark understands that the two are words - and worlds - apart. That Olivier is an actor who wants to be a star and Monroe a star who wants to be an actress.
In a small role as Dame Sybil Thorndike, the veteran thespian who plays Olivier's mother in The Prince, Dame Judi Dench is warmth itself in support of Monroe: "We have so much to learn from you, my dear, about acting before the camera."
The film's most interesting sequence is about the difference between acting for the camera and before it. It's Monroe and Clark at Windsor Castle when the star is recognized suddenly by the royal staff.
"Should I be her?" Monroe whispers mischievously to Clark, slipping from an attractive 60-watt woman into a 150-watt sexpot. Look at how Williams goes from unconsciously being Marilyn to consciously "acting" her. Would that the entire movie were as eloquent. And would that the adorable Emma Watson not be cast in the superfluous role of a wardrobe mistress jilted by Clark.