In the early summer of 1956, ambitious 23 year-old Colin Clark worked as an assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. The film paired Sir Laurence Olivier with Marilyn Monroe, who was newly married to playwright Aurthur Miller. Clark later published a diary account of his experiences on the film set, but his account omitted details of a week spent in the company of Marilyn, following Arthur Miller's departure. Miller's exit paved the way for Clark to introduce Marilyn to simple pleasures of British life, away from Hollywood and hangers-on.

An artful imitation of life.

CHICAGO FILM FESTIVAL: What is fame? Well, one reads the title of this film and even without a tell-tale illustration, chances are one needn't ask "Uh, which Marilyn might that be?"

Norma Jean Baker – aka Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) – was age 30 in 1956 and, by the comparatively quaint hyperbole of the era "the most famous woman in the world" when she arrived in London, freshly wed to playwright Arthur Miller, to star with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in the film he was directing, The Prince and the Showgirl.

Is that enough famous creative people in one sentence? Wait! There's more.

The film, adapted from two memoirs by the late Colin Clark details his first job in the British film industry as an eager lad of 23-going-on-24. Determined to make his own way in the world of showbiz despite his well-connected and over-achieving intellectual family, Clark (Eddie Redmayne, splendid) camped out at Olivier's production offices until he was taken on as 3rd assistant director, what Americans call a gofer as in "go for this" and "go for that."

Without any maneuvering whatsoever, sweet and congenitally decent Colin ends up as Marilyn's confidant and chaste source of solace when her husband, claiming he's unable to concentrate, heads back to New York. The emotional roller coaster of that evenetful week as seen through Colin's eyes, makes for a funny and touching slice of film history filmed with admirable attention to period details.

Williams does a fine job of embodying the semi-holy trinity (anybody recall the incense-swinging masked Marilyns as altar girls in Ken Russell's Tommy?) of Monroes: as a real, private person plagued with insecurity; as an international sex symbol publicly at ease in her curvaceous body; and as Elsie, her role in 1911-set The Prince and the Showgirl. Williams ably puts across the surface mannerisms as well as the breathy delivery of Monroe, be she in vulnerable or manipulative mode and acquits herself well singing two famous musical numbers, which bracket the film.

Doped up on pills and frighteningly dependent on Method-acting high priestess Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), Monroe craves the respectability of being taken seriously as a "real" actress. Olivier, then 50, has technique to burn but envies Monroe's natural gift and craves the sort of popularity that accrues to the big screen more than it does to the legitimate stage.

It is worth noting that at the time depicted, Sir Larry is so famous that he has a brand of cigarettes named after him.

Olivier is brusque and uppity as a director, stunned that Monroe requires over 17 takes to deliver two lines as written without flubbing them. Olivier's 43-year-old wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) fears the effect Monroe's womanly incandescence will have on her marriage. Leigh played the role on stage that Monroe is playing in the film, but she's now too old for the part.

Judi Dench is a delight as venerable thespian Sybil Thorndike, who understands men, actors and acting and exercises her wisdom with light, supportive strokes. Dame Sybil interjects to her exasperated director that Monroe has next-to-no stage training but that her instincts as to what works on camera are flawless. She's photogenic and the camera loves her. As does Colin.

In My Week With Marilyn, the title character breaks down in distress upon discovering Miller's unflattering notes about her, almost certainly jotted down as raw material for future writing projects. Marilyn is deeply hurt and dismayed. Miller would, in fact, make artistic use of his direct experience with Monroe. But then, that's what writers do, much as exude sex appeal is what sex symbols do.

In 1964, Miller's heavily autobiographical play After the Fall about the breakup of his marriage to Monroe premiered in a production directed by Elia Kazan.

Miller's last play, Finishing the Picture, premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2004. Your humble reviewer was lucky enough to see it and can attest to the fact that it made thinly veiled mincemeat out of Lee and Paula Strasberg of Actor's Studio fame as they "helped" their acting protégée on the set of Monroe's final film The Misfits, for which Miller wrote the screenplay.

A week after My Week with Marilyn was completed, it was the centerpiece of the Chicago International Film Festival, whose appreciative audience spanned all age groups. That, too, is the iconic power of Monroe. Oh yes, an imposing 26-foot-tall sculpture of Monroe in her Seven Year Itch pose over a subway grate currently adorns a prominent plaza in downtown Chicago.

According to director Simon Curtis, whose first feature film this is, he was itching for seven years to make the film, which came together in the past two years. Was he a Monroe fanatic? Hardly. "I fell in love with Colin Clark's diaries. There were two [The prince, the showgirl and me: the Colin Clark Diaries (1995); My week with Marilyn (2000)]," Curtis told the Chicago audience. "Shortly before he died (in 2002) he published My Week with Marilyn about the week that Arthur Miller left."

Did Curtis and his crew manage to do additional research with eye witnesses? "The woman who did the continuity on The Prince and the Showgirl is still alive and we spoke to her. She was 30 in 1956, as was Marilyn. You think: One was to live just a few more years [Monroe died at age 36] and one is still alive."

The film shot on many of the actual locations where real life events transpired. The staircase where Marilyn weeps after finding her husband's unflattering observations about her in a notebook? According to Curtis, "That's the actual staircase where she broke down."

They used Monroe's actual dressing room at Pinewood Studios. "The shot where the car pulls up to Windsor Castle is the first time that shot's been allowed," Curtis explains.

Branagh doesn't look anything like the real Olivier, but is great fun to watch in the role. "Ken has always had Olivier thrown at him," Curtis said, joking, "He directed Henry V when he was about 11 and so has always had Olivier comparisons thrown at him. And while we were making this, he was finishing post-production on [his latest directorial effort] Thor."

Some gifted performers stand up well to the stress of show business, achieving a balance between their private and public lives. And others, like Marilyn Monroe, burned brightly through periods of personal turmoil, leaving an indelible mark on those who met her and those who only gazed upon her from afar.

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1 hour 39 min
In Cinemas 16 February 2012,
Thu, 06/21/2012 - 11