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A film about Marilyn Monroe was always going to be tough. How do you portray her? Who do you get to play her? Michelle Williams was an inspired choice, and having Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier is a neat bit of casting. But what about the rest of it?
The film is based on the memoirs of Colin Clarke (Eddie Redmayne), who snagged a job as a third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, which brought Marilyn Monroe to England and under the direction of Olivier. But as she proves an unreliable presence on set, she quickly bewitches the young and impressionable Eddie.
Yes, Williams is very good. She gives excellent on-camera Monroe, with breathiness, wide eyes, and undeniable sex appeal. She also convinces as the unpredictable, depressive, insecure, seductive little girl lost.
The problem is that it’s difficult to warm to Colin or care about his problems. The filmmakers are determined to turn this into a life lesson, a universal story of first love and heartbreak that’s special because Marilyn Monroe is the one doing the heartbreaking. But the story is so far out of the realms of possibility for most of us that a lightness of touch is required. Instead, director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges attack the audience with a hammer. Stilted dialogue reminds us of what we’re supposed to be feeling, and the film is book-ended by terrible narration.
There are some saving graces beside Williams. None of the supporting cast have any compunction about going big, so there’s Dominic Cooper as Marilyn’s manager and Dougray Scott (Hitman) as a laconic Arthur Miller, while Zoe Wannamaker (Harry Potter) has fun as her method acting coach. Julia Ormond (Surveillance) makes a welcome appearance as the professional and astute Vivien Leigh, Branagh tears into his Olivier, and Judi Dench is, thankfully, delightful as Dame Sybill Thorndike.
But the romance between Colin and Marilyn never really grabs us. Redmayne is an interesting choice as he usually plays morally ambiguous characters, and Colin certainly makes some questionable decisions, including ditching Emma Watson’s likeable costume designer. But this isn’t a drama about morality; it’s a wish fulfilment, coming of age story that isn’t light or funny enough to get us onside.
Verdict: Some good moments courtesy of the cast, but generally rather vapid and heavy-handed.