My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh is the Laurence Olivier of his generation, isn’t he? So the reason for the existence of My Week with Marilyn (2011) is so that we can see Sir Kenneth play Lord Olivier. Isn’t it? Which then flows on to other actors impersonating other actors. The film directed by Simon Curtis and shot by Ben Smithard is in the service of this principle. There is little that is sophisticatedly cinematic about it. It is a succession of settings (Windsor Castle, Eton School …) into which are placed some properties and some, well, impersonators. There’s not much pressure on Julia Ormond as Vivian Leigh, as she’s shot in a group, but Dame Judi Dench, playing Dame Sybil Thorndike, has a closeup or two in which she’s doing her best to be the other grande dame. And Michelle Williams works hard (as did her various coaches: dialect, voice, singing, etc.) to do an impersonation of Marilyn Monroe, showing by default how clever the real one was at doing the same thing. (At one point Williams’s character asks, ‘Shall I do her?’) She’s framed very unsympathetically in the closing sequence, turned 5/8 away from the camera, showing parts of a face it (the camera) doesn’t love. I wonder how that stayed in the film. Maybe they could get only one take, as with the real Marilyn.
Finally, Ken Branagh. There are several moments when you could be looking at the real Larry. These are in tight closeup, and Branagh is doing everything he knows (which is a helluva lot) to get every Olivier mannerism. And it’s magical for a few seconds – and then he’s Ken again.
I’m led to wonder which is better: an impersonation such as this tries to be, where the actor aims to be indistinguishable from the historical figure he’s playing; or the kind of work done by Sir Philip Hopkins CBE, better known as Anthony. He plays Hitchcock, or Nixon, but you always know that it’s Hopkins doing it. I may be getting fanciful now, but I like to think that Hopkins knows that he is showing us his own view of (say) Hitchcock: ‘This is Hitchcock, and it’s also how I see him. Look: I’m acting’. In Shklovsky’s terms, it’s laying bare the device.

My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011)

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