As its title naturally suggests, "My Week with Marilyn" gives a unique look at Marilyn Monroe's (Michelle Williams) life on and off-camera during the period she filmed the 1957 comedy romance "The Prince and the Showgirl." Even better, though, it chronicles her volatile working relationship during the production of the film with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), offering an uncommon insight into the processes of not one, but two amazing and decidedly different artists.
Now playing in select theaters and opening wider Friday, "My Week with Marilyn" is based on the diaries of the late Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 23-year-old third assistant director (aka a "gopher") under Olivier who gained the trust of Monroe during the time she was most vulnerable, personally and professionally, during the production of "The Prince and the Showgirl" -- a film that constantly found her at odds with Olivier.
"For me, the whole process of approaching playing him and being in the movie reinforced my sense of awe at what he did," Branagh told me in an interview Wednesday. "I felt a closer connection to him as a human being through understanding the level of intensity of his frustration at this experience. He didn't always come out of it covered in glory, but I think he comes out of it with a sense of his humanity intact."
Branagh, who said he read Clark's memoir when it was released in 1995, said he wasn't taken aback by the Olivier's behavior on the set when reading the script for "My Week with Marilyn." As a director himself (most recently on "Thor") Branagh said in a lot of instances, Olivier -- who flipped out when Monroe would show up late, bring production to a halt, or not show up at all -- was justified in his actions.
"Both at the time I read Clark's memoir and in subsequent writings, Olivier was honest about what he expected from the experience of working with Marilyn," Branagh recalled. "He wanted the film to work so he could reinvent himself, because he was honest about his insecurities. However, he felt that she was undisciplined and unprofessional and he was infuriated by that. It caused him to neglect his own performance a bit, while she, as painful as it was to wait for, would finally deliver a performance that appeared to be so effortless. It was something that made him feel resentful."
The interesting dynamic about their working relationship, Branagh pointed out, was that while Olivier was calling the shots as the director of the film, Monroe was, for all intents and purposes, his superior.
"I think that the fact that Marilyn Monroe was Olivier's boss further intensifying the infuriating situation," Branagh said. "Marilyn Monroe Productions was making this film. She was the biggest star in the world, and she should have been the one that ensuring that it went smoothly for their debut adventure -- and yet she was the one writing the checks and wasting the money."
Despite the troubles Olivier had with Monroe during filming, Branagh believed the actor-director ultimately admired what his star could do.
"He knew that Marilyn had a genuine magic in front of the camera. I think that he was magnanimous about that, and you can eventually see that work that he does on 'The Prince and the Showgirl' -- as traumatic as this experience was for him -- it was quite transformative," Branagh said. "It turned around, perhaps, what he felt was a career that was slightly stagnate, into something that was going to produce the revolutionary performance he gave in 'The Entertainer' shortly afterwards."
Branagh said one of the biggest appeals of playing Olivier in "My Week with Marilyn" came with the unique structure of the film. Most often, when legendary names are batted about for a feature project, the word biopic comes up. Here instead, we're learning a lot about two film legends over a short span of time.
"The film provides with us a snapshot in the intense cauldron of moviemaking could maybe, in pithy episodes, tell you quite a lot about both Monroe and Olivier, through not having the burden of trying to do it entirely fictionally, or across the length of their lives," Branagh said.
Both Branagh and Williams have nabbed major award nominations for their performances as Olivier and Monroe, from the likes of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes. But from a personal standpoint, Branagh said he was knocked out by Williams' performance for many reasons, not the least of which the fact that she's essentially playing three different characters all wrapped up in one.
"She helps us understand that, when Marilyn arrived at work on the set of 'The Prince and the Showgirl,' had already done an enormous amount of preparation to play the character of Marilyn Monroe -- not Norma Jean Baker," Branagh explained. "Marilyn was a fictitious creation who walked, talked, sang, acted and shimmied differently than Norma Jean."
"Then, having arrived on the set as Marilyn -- an already exhaustive part to play -- she then has to go on and play Elsie Marina in the film and tries to do so with this search for authenticity, even though she's already one step away from reality already," Branagh added. "Beyond that, she shows the sort of human frailties of a person whose life depends on how they look. The lack of self-love and self-belief she had was tragic."