You don’t really buy Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe the first time you see her in “My Week With Marilyn.”
Singing and dancing to a medley of “When Love Goes Wrong” and “Heat Wave,” Williams has the legendary icon’s body language down, but she doesn’t really look like Monroe and she doesn’t have her voluptuous curves, either. In that opening scene, you can only see Williams, a supremely gifted actress, trying really hard.
But just wait a little while. One of the chief pleasures of “My Week With Marilyn” — which should not be approached as anything other than fluffy entertainment — is watching Williams bring to life Monroe’s inner demons and her movie-star allure with equal aplomb. By the time the film’s book-ending closing musical number comes around (“That Old Black Magic”), the illusion is astounding and complete.
Monroe has been portrayed in fictional films as often as James Dean: Hollywood loves its tragedies even more than its successes. But Williams, finally getting a chance to glam it up after a career of playing ordinary women with dirt under their fingernails (“Blue Valentine,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy”), does something marvelous with Monroe. She channels every facet of the legend’s persona — her seductiveness, her neuroses, her candle-in-the-wind vulnerability and sometimes breathtaking naivete — while keeping her feet planted firmly on the ground. Williams makes Monroe simultaneously seem larger than life and heartbreakingly human. She shows you why practically everyone who met Monroe fell under her spell – and why she was an endless source of frustration and unfulfilled potential.
Few were more frustrated than Sir Laurence Olivier (smashingly played by Kenneth Branagh), who hopes to benefit from Monroe’s popularity when he invites her to co-star with him in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” a comedy he directed in 1956. Olivier is also planning to have an affair with Monroe if at all possible, but that is quickly forgotten when Monroe arrives and Olivier realizes the depth of her insecurities (she clings to her Method acting coach like a blanket) and her lack of professionalism (she was often late to the set, constantly flubbed lines and some days never even showed up).
Their contentious relationship, which is played primarily for laughs, is seen through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the 23-year-old assistant director whose two memoirs formed the basis of the film. Their platonic romance forms the heart of “My Week With Marilyn,” but it’s Williams’ uncanny performance that gives the movie its soul. Williams does the icon right — she humanizes an untouchable legend.