Now Playing: My Week with Marilyn

Celebrity is much more about how we imagine people than who they essentially are. Hollywood, and the studio age in particular, relies heavily upon this almost primal instinct to create our ideal in someone else. In recent/revisionist versions of the Marilyn Monroe story, it is said that she had always wanted to be thought of as intellectual. She was an avid reader and, before her studio success, had seriously studied the craft of acting, famously/notoriously with the famille Strasberg. An entirely different ideal, however, was projected upon her, which contributed both to her success and also to her personal drama.

This otherwise mediocre film is at its best when it captures those moments when Marilyn the self and Marilyn the ideal shift, almost invisibly, depending on the context and the prevailing dynamics among those who worked with and/or loved her (in the film, it is strongly implied that one came with the other). Michelle Williams, perfectly cast for this role, and rising to the occasion with a fierce commitment which would have made the real Marilyn proud, brilliantly and convincingly captures those shifts, which endears the audience to Marilyn the self, even as it gazes openly at Marilyn the ideal. Cinematographer Ben Smithard holds the camera to Ms. Williams like a mirror. She plays at it, scrutinizes herself with it, doubts herself in it. With subtle changes in her elastic face – a corner of her mouth, a slow agonizing blink of her eyes as she waits for an answer she will never get- she captures a third Marilyn, that very young woman torn between personhood and celebrity, caught in the midst of her shape-shifting, like some sort of glamorous and forlorn superhero. The cinematography also cleverly plays on the iconic images of her, challenging our gaze and our sympathies; the film opens and closes with her famous curves and mouth in profile, singing to an unfathomable and, in a manner of speaking, invisible audience.

With Julia Ormond and her perfect cheekbones as the fiercely elegant Vivien Leigh, and Kenneth Branagh, performing his ideal of a Lawrence Olivier, with a love that can only come from one iconic actor to another.

My Week with Marilyn. Dir. Simon Curtis. The Weinstein Company, et al, 2011.