There’s no nice way to say it: Aside from both women being blondes, Michelle Williams looks nothing like Marilyn Monroe. Her face is wider, her features thicker, her figure less of a bodacious cartoon. This is only by comparison, of course - Williams is one of the lovelier talents of her generation - but because Monroe has been burned onto our cultural retina for so long, because we’re still on a first-name basis with her a half century after her death, comparisons are inevitable and a little unfair. We can buy Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, say, or Meryl Streep as Julia Child, but there’s only one Marilyn.
Here’s the thing, though. For the 99 pleasantly strained minutes of “My Week With Marilyn,’’ Williams convinces us of her Marilyn Monroe. The movie, the first to be directed by longtime British producer Simon Curtis, is about the star’s arrival in London in 1956 to make “The Prince and the Showgirl’’ with director and costar Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). The film’s title couldn’t have been more apt. Olivier was a Knight of the Empire and the reigning rajah of British theater and film. Marilyn was Marilyn - an adorable Hollywood blow-up doll who was easy for 1950s America to drool over and easier still to mock.
The filming of “Prince’’ was a legendary collision of the artiste and the movie star, Olivier trying to get scenes in the can while Monroe repeatedly froze like a deer in headlights. She wanted to be taken seriously as an actress - coming to England with her playwright husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), New York acting coach Paula Strasberg (a marvelously parasitic Zoe Wanamaker), and assorted hangers-on - but the presence of the British stage gods jammed her gears. Monroe blew lines, kept cast and crew waiting for hours, and yawed between panic, depression, and mercurial high spirits.
“My Week With Marilyn,’’ as the title implies, is based on a memoir - two, actually - by Colin Clark, who was a lowly teenage gofer on the “Prince’’ set yet became Monroe’s confidante, protector, and playmate. That’s the way Clark tells it, anyway, and the fresh-faced young actor Eddie Redmayne (“Savage Grace’’) gives a convincing impression of naive ambition. An entitled son of the upper class (his father was the art historian and TV personality Sir Kenneth Clark), Colin is a likably obnoxious go-getter who arrives on set and immediately sets his cap for wardrobe assistant Lucy (Emma Watson).
Only until Marilyn notices him, though; then he and the movie leave Watson high and dry. “My Week’’ makes it clear why Monroe starts emotionally preying on Colin, the least important person on the shoot: He’s the only one not demanding anything of her. Eventually the two scamper away from the fuming Olivier to frolic and skinny-dip in the country, watched over by the benevolent roughneck bodyguard (Philip Jackson) who adores her like everyone else.
Monroe’s great trick was to seduce people and make them think it was their idea. The little-girl voice and Bo-Peep eyes weren’t an act - or just an act - but they combined with her vulnerability to project a weirdly sexy innocence. She was the virgin who knew how, and those who fell for her - in life or on a movie screen - were torn between wanting to ravish her and save her. Or save her by ravishing her, a quintessentially 1950s sexual calculus.
“My Week With Marilyn’’ is diverting enough on a spot-the-personality level: Ooh, there’s Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, and Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Dominic Cooper as Monroe’s agent Milton Greene. The period is lovingly captured, and Branagh, having remade some of Olivier’s Shakespeare films and been compared to him enough times, finally gives in and just becomes the man.
Williams, though, is the one element that raises “My Week’’ above the pedestrian. She knows that Monroe existed primarily in the moment of conquest, whether she’s insecurely wrapping the love-besotted Colin around her finger or - in the movie’s most telling moment - coming alive as a movie star, as “Marilyn,’’ when fans recognize her on the street. Williams gets the singing and dancing right in the re-creation of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’’ number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’’ (a movie so far superior to both “The Prince and the Showgirl’’ and “My Week With Marilyn’’ that it’s vaguely embarrassing), but, more to the point, she conveys the joy Monroe got out of the come-on and the neediness that made her afraid to stop.
All of which is richer and more honest than any other part of the movie. The point of “My Week’’ appears to be that Colin is the one person in Monroe’s life who isn’t using her, but if squeezing two books and a movie out of one brief encounter isn’t exploitation, I don’t know what is. All that keeps the film from necrophilia is that it plays to the ways we ourselves still use Marilyn for our lusts and crocodile tears while admitting that she was surprisingly gifted at using us right back.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.