It’s 1956 and Hollywood’s biggest star is coming to London to make a movie with Britain’s greatest actor. The pair: Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivierl. The film: The Prince and the Showgirl, a frothy comedy based on Terence Rattigan’s recent West End hit. It should be an inspired marriage of Hollywood glamour and British class – but as the funny, touching, gloriously entertaining My Week with Marilyn reveals, the film shoot turns instead into a titanic clash of temperaments, outlooks and acting styles.
Newly married to playwright Arthur Miller, Michelle Williams’ Marilyn is needy and nervy, clinging for dear life to her acting coach and emotional crutch, New York Method guru Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). Brimming with old world suavity and confidence, Olivier (Kenneth Branagh finally playing the role he’s spent a lifetime rehearsing), is The Prince and the Showgirl’s director as well as its male lead, which causes him no end of exasperation when his co-star turns up late, fluffs her lines and generally behaves like a basket case.
Yet when she gets things right, she is unmatchable. Effervescent, natural, totally captivating. Beside her, Olivier looks fusty and old-fashioned, and he knows it, which only prompts him to bully her more.
Fizzes and sparkles.
Observing all this closely from his vantage as the film’s 3rd assistant director is callow 23-year-old Oxford graduate Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). The well-connected Clark (son of art historian Kenneth and younger brother of future MP Alan) has wangled a job as a gofer on the production, but he quickly becomes Monroe’s confidant and ally.
And when the pressures on and off the set become too much for her, he whisks her off for the madcap week of the title, an idyllic round of high-end sightseeing (Windsor Castle and Eton, his alma mater) and clandestine frolics (including a spot of skinny-dipping in the Thames).
The Prince and the Showgirl proved to be a sluggish flop. Yet the film it has inspired fizzes and sparkles. This time the meeting of Hollywood star and British thespians comes off beautifully.
Redmayne is ideal as the wet-behind-the-ears youth who rubs shoulders with a goddess. And there is sterling support from Judi Dench as a shrewd, sympathetic Dame Sybil Thorndike, Julia Ormond as a rueful Vivien Leigh, and Emma Watson as the wardrobe girl who is Colin’s sort-of girlfriend. Branagh’s ripe performance as Olivier won’t be too all tastes, but Williams is simply sensational as Monroe. Without attempting anything so crude as an impersonation, she captures something of the star’s essence, a potent blend of flakiness and vulnerability, unconscious guile, sexiness and unquenchable charisma.
My Week with Marilyn: On general release from Friday 25th November.