‘My Week with Marilyn’ movie review: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe

In 1956, Hollywood superstar sex symbol Marilyn Monroe travelled to London’s Pinewood Studios to film The Prince and the Showgirl for director-star Laurence Olivier. 

Monroe wanted to become taken seriously as an actress, and had been studying with method acting guru Lee Strasberg. Olivier, perhaps, wanted to be taken less seriously with Showgirl, a light romantic comedy following his acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations.

There’s a great story in there, and it’s partially told in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn, which stars Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier (both actors are Oscar-nominated for their performances). The film is at its best on the set of Showgirl, where these two larger-than-life personalities clash.

Unfortunately, that’s only a small portion of the film, most of which centers around the “My” in the title: third assistant director Colin Clark. 

Clark described the making of The Prince and the Showgirl – and his own exploits at the time – in the autobiographical novels The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me and My Week with Marilyn, which was released five years later and describes a more intimate relationship with Monroe, conveniently left out of the earlier novel.

Clark, played by Eddie Redmayne, comes from an aristocratic background (his uncle – played by Derek Jacobi – is the librarian at Windsor Castle) but is determined to make it in the film world with Olivier Productions. His tenacity lands him a low-level job on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, where he nonetheless has unprecedented access to both Olivier and Monroe.

Monroe is a fragile beauty, medicated by sleeping pills, in a stormy relationship with Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), coached by Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker) and mentored by costar Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) on set, but terrified of her new role. 

Olivier is the diligent director, trying to coach a ‘natural’ (read: ditzy) performance out of her but failing to connect with his actress on a personal level (supposedly, Olivier was driven so mad by Monroe’s behavior that he abandoned directing duties for the next decade-plus).

My Week with Marilyn also charts Clark’s relationship with a costume girl (Emma Watson), though it leaves out a homosexual encounter he chartered in his first book. But the film begins to feel queasy when the relationship between Clark and Monroe is developed: it feels indulgent at best, disingenuous at worst. It also feels wrong in the context of the film: with nowhere to take their relationship, it comes off as insubstantial.

Williams does not capture the essence of Monroe (who could?), one of the most famous images of beauty in recorded history, but she offers a tender, revealing portrait of the actress during a difficult time in her life. 

Branagh is likewise superb, and perfectly cast (in spirit, if not in appearance) as Olivier. The supporting cast, which also features Toby Jones, Dominic Cooper, and Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, is phenomenal.

But TV veteran Curtis offers little cinematic flair, and Clark’s titular week with Marilyn is difficult to swallow. An end scrawl informs us of the future successes of Monroe and Olivier, and also Clark, who found no future in film but became famous forty years later when he wrote about his exploits with Marilyn Monroe. That sounds about right.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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