Directed by Simon Curtis
Played by Eddie Redmayne, Colin is a movie enthusiast who leaves his wealthy family’s castle to get a job as an assistant for Lawrence Olivier while he directs a movie adaptation of a play that will bring American screen goddess Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) to the United Kingdom, specifically Pinewood Studios, where she longs to prove herself as an actress. These were different times when many British theater actors had already been made “Sirs” and “Dames” before transitioning to film.
The Marilyn phenomenon is something that must feel as foreign to those under a certain age as it did to the serious British actors back then. It was a clear precursor for the public’s interest in celebrities that carries through to this day, but much of Marilyn’s persona was a façade, yet it was something that clearly affected everyone around her, particularly men. When she shows up on Olivier’s set, she becomes like a deer in the headlights, nervous about working with real actors, and always accompanied by her acting coach Paula Strassberg and other glommers-on. She eventually takes a shine to the naïve Colin and he becomes her close confidante, eliciting jealousy from everyone around them, including the wardrobe girl Lucy (played by “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson) who Colin had previously shown interest in.
As the title implies, the film covers a week during the shooting of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (under its working title of “The Sleeping Prince,”), starting as a light and witty comedy about the travails of filmmaking and Olivier’s exasperation with his starlet’s idiosyncrasies. It has a similar feel as Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Wells” during this section of the movie, and it takes some time before the film really feels like it offers anything with real weight. The more time it spends showing the evolving relationship between Marilyn and Colin, the deeper it becomes.
Michelle Williams’ effervescent portrayal of Monroe starts off as a fairly subdued performance, more about the fact she looks exactly like the ’50s star as she recreates many of her distinctive mannerisms. Her performance transforms into something far meatier as it shows the divergent sides of her personality, both in the public eye and private. It’s the latter scenes where we get to see the real Marilyn behind the façade, a woman who grew up without a father and is constantly feeling the pressure of having to become the “Marilyn” everyone loves. Michelle really shines in these scenes, but it’s also fascinating to watch her recreate actual scenes and perform songs from the original movie; at times, her performances are so compelling you can see the awe in the faces of her co-stars by what she’s doing.
The casting of Kenneth Branagh as Sir Lawrence Olivier is equally brilliant, not just because he’s terrific at portraying the equally disparate sides of the temperamental filmmaker to life, but also due to the things they have in common. (Both have directed screen versions of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Henry V,” for instance.)
Those two performances clearly stand out, but being that the story is told from the eyes of Colin, it wouldn’t work nearly as well if not for Eddie Redmayne giving one of his most mature screen performances to date. Director Simon Curtis, who has cut his teeth with television and theater, turns his first feature film into an actor’s showcase with an impressive ensemble that includes the likes of Dame Judi Dench who can make any scene better. Here, she plays the experienced actress who goes out of her way to try to make Marilyn feel comfortable. Toby Jones has an equally funny but smaller role as Marilyn’s publicist, and Dougray Scott is just as strong playing Marilyn’s third husband, playwright Arthur Miller. As much as the film is about Marilyn, they include a lot of nice character touches for others, like Olivier’s wife Vivian Leigh, played by Julia Ormond, who deals with her own aging while feeling threatened by Marilyn’s presence and her husband’s fascination with her.
Curtis is clearly enamored by Monroe and how films were made in the ’50s, especially how different schools of acting and celebrity were brought together by Olivier’s film. He does a perfectly capable job of recreating the setting as well as marrying all the different subplots together while bringing the best out of his top-notch cast.
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