The breathy voice, the girlish cadence, the flirty demeanor, even the slightest facial gestures - Michelle Williams gets many of the details right and gives a thoroughly committed performance as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn."
But as good as Williams is - as good as she always is - and as devoted as she clearly was to embodying this woman fully, you never truly forget that you're watching an extended impression of the pop culture icon. A lot of that has to do with the fact that this is indeed a legend she's playing, and it's difficult to take mythology and turn it into something tangible and true. But the script from Adrian Hodges, based on memoirs by Colin Clark, doesn't offer Williams much substance or subtlety with which to work.
The Monroe she's given functions in only two gears: Either she's the dazzling, charismatic sex symbol of lore, or she's stoned, insecure and in constant need of coddling. Surely there was more complexity to this woman who continues to fascinate us nearly four decades after her untimely death, but you won't find it here.
That kind of reductive approach unfortunately prevails throughout from director Simon Curtis, a British television veteran making his feature filmmaking debut. Laurence Olivier comes off as cartoonishly arrogant and vain, despite being played by Kenneth Branagh, an actor of great depth (who happens to share Olivier's affinity for Shakespeare). The Method acting technique that Monroe applied is a repeated target of jokes, as if it were some sort of flimsy, fringy philosophy (and Zoe Wanamaker, as acting coach Paula Strasberg, comes off as a caricature of a yenta).
One of the least developed characters of all is the one who is central to this story and serves as our conduit. He's Colin Clark himself (Eddie Redmayne), a young, star-struck and personality-free assistant on "The Prince and the Showgirl," which Monroe was shooting in England in 1956. Colin comes from money but wants to prove himself by working his way up from the bottom in the film world.
Monroe, by contrast, is the most famous person on the planet at this point. But despite her celebrity and new marriage to Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), she desperately wants to be taken seriously. Even though this picture is a light romantic comedy, it gives her a chance to work with Olivier as both her director and co-star. She is, of course, paralyzed with fear. Olivier's wife, Vivien Leigh (played with grace and candor by Julia Ormond) tries to encourage her. Another of Monroe's co-stars, the far more seasoned and distinguished Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), reaches out to her with patience and kindness.
But for some reason, Monroe also seeks comfort in Colin, of all people - according to him, at least. This is, after all, his story. She keeps drawing him closer, which becomes easier when Miller returns to the United States, even as all her various hangers-on view him as a threat and try to push him away.
Prior to the development of this relationship, though, "My Week With Marilyn" offers an amusing (though not exactly novel) peek at the stir Monroe's presence caused in the rural area surrounding Pinewood Studios west of London. The actual filmmaking process, especially with the involvement of such esteemed figures, is always fascinating to watch. Or at least it should be. Like the depiction of Monroe herself, the film as a whole rings hollow with a kind of airy, unsatisfying emptiness.
"My Week With Marilyn," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.