In the summer of 1956, Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe (played by Michelle Williams) arrived on British soil to produce and star in The Prince and the Showgirl, co-starring and directed by acting legend and British acting royalty Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). On that same shoot was then-23-year-old Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), an Oxford graduate from a well-established family who was desperate to make it as a filmmaker, and as third assistant director on the film, found himself in the most intimate situation with the screen siren, who confided in him during one magical week.
Curtis’ quintessentially British affair captures the imagination from the word go as it’s not just the promise of someone bringing Marilyn to life, but also the stuff of dreams: We have all thought at one point, what if you found yourself in the company of your idol for one week and got to know them like no other? His film, while brazenly pining for the romance of the ‘good old days’, is also stylish, quirky and natty, like the glamorous yesteryear Pinewood productions it strives to recreate, and has an enthusiastic, cheeky and addictive energy, as well as a truly wonderful cast to deliver this.
Williams is sure to get her second Oscar nomination for her Marilyn portrayal. She summons just the right countenance, pose and effervescence of the screen idol, while giving a respectable and credible insight into the darker recesses of her tortured mind and soul. This childlike innocence and fragility is beautifully captured when Marilyn is in awe of a dolls house in one scene, that we fall that little bit more for her and her crushing vulnerability at the hands of fame. That said the Jekyll and Hyde emotions suggest a far less naïve side at the end, very much a woman in control of her own destiny and brand, and Williams subtly and expertly relays this, but still retains Marilyn’s treasured enigma to marvel at. Curtis fuels the love affair with some highly impressive renditions from multi-talented Williams who actually performs Marilyn’s songs, “When Love Goes Wrong/Heat Wave” and “That Old Black Magic”.
Another standout performance comes from Branagh as the acidic-tongued theatrical stalwart Olivier, brilliantly allowing the sarcasm at the tardy Hollywood star’s irresponsibility and drama to drip off the tongue while absolutely nailing Olivier’s clipped and polished pronunciation with thrilling results. Like a scolding mentor, Olivier is the unwilling villain of the piece, who also reveals an intriguing vulnerability at becoming yesterday’s news. It is such insecurities we can all relate to, not just actors but anyone at the height of their career.
Redmayne gives a career-defining performance as Colin, a mixture of cocky youthful arrogance and personable honesty, as much a pawn as Marilyn in the film game – hence she adopts him as her temporary friend. Redmayne commendably plays the doting and mesmerised, lovesick aide who falls for the Marilyn magic, and his moments opposite Williams are truly tender and unique as unconventional ‘love affairs’ go.
There are also some divine supporting moments to enjoy from Judi Dench as actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, the dry-witted and patient surrogate mother to the fragile on-set Marilyn; a virtually unrecognisable Zoë Wanamaker as Marilyn’s drab and domineering Method coach and shoulder-to-cry-on Paula Strasberg; and Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, Marilyn’s estranged co-producer who fell for the Marilyn charms years earlier and has to deal with his jealousy at Colin’s closeness with the star. Julia Ormond is captivating as screen legend and Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, who is also tackling the ‘has-been’ demons that come with age. Emma Watson briefly appears as costume hand and Colin’s fling, Emma, an apt transition into the adult acting arena for the Harry Potter star. There is a real sense from all involved that this was a labour of love to do the utmost justice to the memoir and provide a bigger picture of the highs and lows of that time, as well as a lot of fun in parts.
As a first feature, Curtis has made a significant mark and shown a real gift for character narration, delivering a powerhouse of individual and ensemble acting prowess that encapsulates this glamorous era of filmmaking history, even if it is guilty of being a little pious at times.