Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker, Dominic Cooper, Emma Watson, Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench.
Running Time: 99 mins. approx.
Seen at: Didsbury
On: Saturday, 17th December, 2011.
Biopics – that is the profiling of a real-life figure, currently seem rather flavour-of-the month on film. Starting off the New Year in January, of course we have Meryl Streep as Margret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but first we have this charming true-life tale of Norma Jean, better known as the original blonde bombshell – Marilyn Monroe.
One would hope this present popularity with the biopic will continue its trend of translating well in awards season. A prime example would be The King’s Speech, with Colin Firth’s magnificent portrayal of King George VI.
Equally impressive here, is the beautifully talented Michelle Williams, faced with the near-impossible task of playing Monroe. She succeeds wonderfully – while she may not look exactly like her (although the likeness is often striking) – what she really does manage to capture perfectly is the voice, as well as her many distinctive mannerisms. That tilt of the head, the dreamlike, high-pitched register of a breathless voice, almost reminiscent of a naïve child floating on air.
The film’s opening sequence is Monroe’s rendition of the musical number Heatwave from There’s No Business Like Show Business. During that short period of time, set against a black stage backdrop and the deep red gels of the lights – Williams expertly encapsulates every wiggle of the hips or airy kiss blown to an adoring audience member in Monroe’s inimitable manner.
The films perspective is seen from Colin Clark, a young assistant who goes to work for Pinewood Studios. It is his account of one week in 1956, when Monroe, on her very first visit to London, came to make the film later released as The Prince and the Showgirl.
It was of course directed by and starred the great infamous legend of screen and theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier. This film charts wonderfully the contentiously tempestuous relationship between the inexperienced Monroe and the demands of the exacting Olivier.
Kenneth Branagh, perhaps even the theatrical equivalent of Olivier in his day, is also wonderful in that role, (again, a real physical resemblance, as well as his lisp), injecting cutting comments of humour at her expense occasionally, which displays just how strained their working relationship really was. ‘Teaching Marilyn Monroe how to act, is like teaching Urdu to a badger!’ - he incredulously remarks at one stage.
There’s shining support too from a real stellar cast. This includes the likes of rising star of Mamma Mia and The Duchess Dominic Cooper as studio manager and producer Milton Greene, Harry Potter star Emma Watson as wardrobe girl Lucy, and Julia Ormond as Olivier’s wife and star of Gone With The Wind Vivien Leigh – sister of Janet.
Also featured are Dougray Scott as Monroe’s then-third husband Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, and Dame Judi Dench playing another Dame, fantastic as the stage veteran, Dame Sybil Thorndike.
The true standout performance really does come from the fabulous Zoe Wanamaker, a pure joy as Marilyn’s acting coach and confidant Paula Strasberg, wife of Lee, the famous founder of a School of Acting.
Thickly bespectacled in giant, black goggles – she is the character whose performance is captured most perfectly, while also providing the film’s main source of humour, almost as her mother figure. ‘Open the door Bubbalah’ she says, in an effort to coax Marilyn out of her locked room. It was her job to educate and support Marilyn, when the pressure of acting and stardom became too much. ‘Think of the things you like’ she tells her at one point. ‘Frank Sinatra. Coco-Cola! Use your substitutions’. She tried in vain to act as the mediator between her and Olivier, stating: ‘Charlie Chaplin took eight months to make a movie!’.
These are just some examples of dialogue in a screenplay that often sparkles with wit, but is also not afraid to tackle the darker issues in an ultimately tragic life, namely Marilyn’s untimely struggle with her addiction to prescription pills to cope with the extreme fame. There are moments when she is mobbed by the press intrusion of a swarm of paparazzi, whilst out on a simple shopping trip. It is in these scenes that Williams best embodies that unique mixture of vivacious sex appeal, and fragility of innocence that made Marilyn so fascinating. She even asks Colin at one point: ‘Shall I be her?’ – meaning the Hollywood persona of Marilyn that was projected in the media.
This is a frequently humorous, yet often moving film, filled with superb, Oscar-worthy performances, with Williams and Branagh the most likely to collect deserved accolades in February’s approaching awards season.
Rating: * * * *