My Week With Marilyn *** (out of five)
Michelle Williams is astonishingly good as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Not only are her physical and vocal mannerisms brilliantly in line with those of Monroe, she brings huge compassion to the part. Her Monroe is capable of great joy – and is tremendously talented – but burdened by absolutely savage self-confidence issues; coupled with a reliance on all sorts of medication, she is seriously vulnerable. It’s really quite an incredible performance, and a seriously brave one: would you be willing to take on the role of someone whom history has recorded as among the most alluring and beautiful people to have ever lived?
It’s a great shame the film itself can’t equal the brilliance of Williams’ performance. Based on two books by Colin Cook, My Week With Marilyn and The Prince, The Showgirl and Me, this relatively small-scale British film purports to tell the true story of the unlikely bond that developed between Cook and Monroe while he was the 3rd Assistant Director on Laurence Olivier’s strange comedy The Prince and The Showgirl (1957). The material has already been filmed, as television documentary The Prince, The Showgirl and Me (2004) and the material certainly has plenty of promise: the clash of wills between the world’s most bankable movie star and the English Theatre’s most highly regarded practitioner; an inside look behind the facade of a great movie star troubled by multiple demons; and the scandal of a potentially romantic liaison between said 30 year old movie star (recently married to Arthur Miller) and a 23 year old babe in the filmmaking woods.
That material is all there, but it’s not told in any sort of a thrilling manner. The clashes between Olivier and Monroe – usually about her coming late to set – become monotonous very quickly, and are devoid of wit. The peek behind Marilyn’s facade fares better (thanks entirely to Williams) but it’s all stuff we already know: pills to make her go to sleep, pills to calm her down, shifty Hollywood types giving her the pills. And the sniff of sex is vacant: the film makes it very clear that Cook and Monroe never slept together (which may just be Cook the Englishman’s civility and taste rising above salaciousness).
Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier is ripe and fruity: it’s a part he was born to play, and luckily he manages to keep it just this side of hammy (though why he’s nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for this is anyone’s guess: it’s hardly a stretch). Eddie Redmayne is fine, if not particularly outstanding, as Cook (though his incessant smiling, even when faced with bad news, becomes quite annoying) and Zoë Wanamaker makes an impression as Marilyn’s acting coach, the “legendary” Paula Strasberg. Unfortunately, every American character besides Marilyn is played by a British actor with uniformly terrible accents, which unfortunately gives the production a cheap and shoddy veneer.
It is intriguing that this film and The Iron Lady co-exist this year, and that both Williams and Meryl Streep are up for Best Actress at the Oscars. Both were American movie stars imported into relatively modest British productions, and both far, far outshone those films they were in. My Week With Marilyn is entertaining enough – it’s a good story, and there’s that outstanding performance – but it is very apparent that it simply could have been better, and that’s a frustrating thing.
The Grey **** (out of five)
The Grey, the new film from Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces, The A Team) features some astonishing sequences, spectacular cinematography, excellent performances and heartfelt ruminations on mortality, faith, masculinity, hope, family and existence. It also has really really cool wolves.
The set-up couldn’t be simpler: an Alaskan Airlines flight carrying a motley crew of swarthy oil drillers from their far-flung camp to Anchorage crashes on route, leaving eight survivors stranded in the frozen wilderness – surrounded by very scary wolves. Liam Neeson plays Ottway, a lost Irish soul whose job as a wolf-sharpshooter for the mining company gives him an understanding of the wolvish mind, allowing him to lead the men in their only quest – to survive.
The Grey is bleak and uncompromising. It is superbly crafted, but beyond that, the script is terrific, constantly surprising us with scenes of great invention and intensity. Early on, we watch Ottway help one of the wreck’s injured die; it is staggeringly effective. A later scene – a nighttime face-off between men and wolves – is astonishingly beautiful, just as it is truly terrifying. Throughout the film, the script veers sharply from the directions you expect it to go; the familiar premise gives way to something that’s bold and original – not at all formulaic. Yes, the survivors aren’t all going to get along all of the time; yes, some of them – perhaps all – are going to die. Beyond those basic tenants, however, anything goes – and a lot of it does.
The wolves (and there’s a lot of wolf action) are beautifully rendered. I don’t know to what degree they’re composed of real wolf, animatronic wolf or CGI wolf, but the effect is perfect. They’re ferocious and terrifying but also possessed of dignity and grace. Whether in long shot, galloping in a pack down the snowy tundra, or in extreme close-up, growling threateningly (the sound design for them is also fabulous), they’re always real characters – and real adversaries. Whatever the amounts of CGI used, they don’t look or feel like CGI. If they had, the movie might not have worked at all. As it is, I think it has every potential to become a small, timeless classic. It’s inventive, brutal, stark and vital; it never panders to any pre-conceived notions of what we may want out of a wilderness survival movie – The Grey is its own particular take on that trope, and it does it very, very well – and with freaking excellent wolves.