The post-war fantasy of countless young boys gets another treatment in director Simon Curtis’ true-life biopic, landing the screen vixen smack in the middle of filming The Prince and the Showgirl in 1950s London. As played by Michelle Williams, who has become one of cinema’s most important actors, this Monroe is a self-conscious mess, constantly late to set, and the cross that director Laurence Olivier (an astoundingly dramatic Kenneth Branagh) must bear as the price to cast an international superstar in his film. Eddie Redmayne is the set gopher assigned to keep an eye on Monroe as she navigates the hilly road between Marilyn, Norma Jean, and the pressures of stardom. Redmayne falls in what he thinks must be love (because what healthy heterosexual young man wouldn’t have?) but discovers far too late that the object of his affection and the woman off-screen are two vastly different people.
Consider Williams’ previous roles, as a 60s housewife suffering silently in the shadow of a closeted husband in Brokeback Mountain (she’s smart enough to know that his fishing trips with Jack Twist never produce any fish) and another, entirely different, wife in Blue Valentine, whose own self-loathing runs so deep she literally recoils at her husband’s touch. Now watch her live and breathe Marilyn Monroe. She switches almost on a dime between the cowering pill addict and global sex figure, collapsing in a corner one moment, and posing for photographers only seconds later. It’s quite a touching performance. And Branagh does some of his best work in years, as the pompous and thinly-tempered Olivier. He changes things up almost as quickly as Williams, doing his best to mollify Monroe to her face, but launching into near-apoplectic rage behind closed doors.
This is featherweight stuff without any real dramatic tension. I wish the screenplay had been more daring instead of pulling its punches, given the tortured nature of its subject. Despite Branagh’s bravura performance, it seems there was too much levity induced in his moments of conflict that should have been more far more explosive. The film feels a little too safe, too standard biography, when there was so much power to mine from its source. I left the theater with admiration for the film’s performances but little else.