My 90 Minutes with Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh

Vivien Leigh Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier

Vivien Leigh, marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in London, 1956. The real deal.

Almost everyone who knows me and my taste in films/my appreciation for Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh predicted I’d hate My Week with Marilyn, the debut film by director Simon Curtis based on the diaries of Colin Clark. They were right – to a point. The film as a whole is pretty entertaining. I laughed quite a bit (although not always during moments that are supposed to be funny). But I also found myself saying, “what?” and “really?” more often than not. You see, I gave an honest go at having no, or at least low, expectations. I knew it wasn’t going to be a masterpiece of cinema, so it was better than I expected. But from a fan perspective, I wouldn’t call it a “good” film. Not by a long shot.

Clark’s diaries, published as The Prince, The Showgirl and Me (see the documentary made from the book) and My Week with Marilyn were combined to form the basis of the script. Clark (Eddie Redmayne) had family connections to the film industry. His father, Kenneth, was a famous and very wealthy art historian who was the director of the National Gallery and head of the Ministry of Information Films Division during the war. He was also good friends with the Oliviers. When Colin expressed interest in going into filmmaking, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) persuaded Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) to give him a job on her husband’s next picture, The Prince and The Showgirl, in which he was set to co-star with Hollywood’s it girl Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Clark details his time working as 3rd assistant director to Olivier. His job consisted of doing whatever anyone told him to do. Somehow he ended up becoming a confidant of the notoriously problematic and troubled Monroe, and My Week with Marilyn covers the week Clark spent in fantasy land with his favorite blonde bombshell.

Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn

Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh as Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier

Colin Clark had a knack for words and his books make for fun, light reads. This is the sort of reading one might do at the beach, or, in my case, by the pool at my old apartment in southern CA. I quite enjoyed the little insights he gave into the world of my favorite celebrity couple. To be honest, I’ve never cared much for Marilyn Monroe. I recognize her overwhelming star quality, but she’s never moved me as an actress, and the fact that she dominates the pop culture market from beyond the grave (rather like James Dean and Elvis) is off-putting. Therefore, whether Clark’s claims of love on a sunny afternoon near Windsor are true or not is of little interest to me. What his books aren’t are very serious or in-depth. Consequently, the film isn’t very serious either and what we are treated to is a bunch of over the top caricatures of larger-than-life celebrities.

Michelle Williams gives the best turn of the entire film. She doesn’t have the charisma or the curves that the real Marilyn possessed, but she gives an honest attempt at projecting the troubled vulnerability beneath the sex symbol exterior. As the film seems to be a showcase for a possible Oscar nomination, it would make sense that she was allowed to give a deeper exploration of her character. There are times when I did feel sorry for “Marilyn” but everyone around her was so over the top and silly that it was hard to take anyone seriously. Judi Dench phoned in as Sybil Thondike and will probably get an Oscar for her 3 minutes of screen time. Emma Watson is a pointless space-filler as Lucy the wardrobe girl in her first post-Harry Potter role. Dougray Scott was a guy with a cliche and silly New Yorker accent – oh, I’m sorry he was supposed to be Arthur Miller (anyone remember him from Ever After with Drew Barrymore?). Julia Ormond is a lady named Vivien Leigh who thinks she’s no longer loved because she’s 42.

Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in My Week with Marilyn

A hot mess

The worst performance was given by Kenneth Branagh. Let me rephrase that, my least favorite performance was given by Kenneth Branagh. All the critics seem to be wetting themselves, saying how he’s a shoe-in for an Oscar and how brilliant he is at capturing the hammy essence of Sir Laurence Olivier. Hammy is right. One could glaze him up and set him on the table for Christmas dinner. I’m sure he’s been waiting to play Olivier on screen his entire life, so now that he’s finally gotten his chance, he went all out with it. In constructing the character, Branagh took some cues from Olivier himself, using facial prosthetics such as a fake chin to give him the famous Olivier cleft (not to mention enough make-up to make him look like a drag queen in training), although he only really looks like Larry in some instances; he simply doesn’t have the fantastic bone structure. He also tries on various voices and dramatic gestures as if to prove he is an actor.

Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn

Play acting

The real Laurence Olivier once said of people in his profession, “We ape, we mimic, we mock, we act.” This is exactly what Branagh does. He plays Olivier as a camp, completely over-the-top buffoon, out to steal the show by being loud and obnoxious and trying to get all the laughs. He mimics Olivier but never attempts to get beyond the surface. This is not entirely his fault. There are some instances where he might have had the opportunity to dig a little deeper, such as those involving Vivien Leigh. For example, there is one scene that takes place in a screening room at Pinewood. Larry and Vivien are watching the daily rushes from the film. Seeing the young and beautiful Marilyn flounce around on screen makes Vivien upset and she begins degrading herself (how cliche can this portrayal of Vivien Leigh get, honestly?). Larry, using the nickname he lovingly bestowed on his second wife, takes Vivien in his arms and says, “Oh, Puss, you’re ten times the actress she is.”  In a flash, her mood changes (she was crazy, don’tcha know?). “If you could see the way you look at her,” Vivien passionately emotes. “I hope she makes your life hell,” she concludes before storming out of the room. Colin, who witnesses the scene from the doorway, comes in and offers Larry a cigarette, which he takes with slightly shaking hands. In real life, Laurence Olivier’s marriage to Vivien Leigh was on the rocks at this time, and she suffered a miscarriage during the making of the film, adding an extra layer of misery to the stress of dealing with an unprofessional co-star. When he takes the cigarette offered him by Colin in the screening room, we get the tiniest glimpse of what could possibly have been the human side of Laurence Olivier, but the film cuts to the next scene before Branagh can go any deeper. It’s a pity, because in this film Larry comes off  as not only cliche but also as a complete tit. What’s so disappointing is that these really are the common perceptions of Laurence Olivier today–that he was camp, a hammy actor and a mean person–and Branagh’s performance, as well as the way this film is scripted and directed, serves only to enhance rather than dispel these views.

For the average viewer who knows nothing about the real people being depicted, My Week with Marilyn probably seems like a good film, or at least some fun, light entertainment. For fans, however – particularly those of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – it will probably be a disappointment. This film is extremely shallow. The real Monroe, Olivier and Leigh were legends in their own time and they embodied an aura of glamour and mystique that was so essential to classic Hollywood cinema. The actors playing these people completely pale in comparison. For me, My Week with Marilyn just proved that they really don’t make ’em like they used to. If you’re looking for pure, cliche entertainment, this may be the film for you. If you’re hoping for an in-depth glimpse into the secret lives of some of the most famous personalities of the 20th Century, best head elsewhere.

Grade: C


Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments (41)

  1. Thanks for the excellent review. Don’t know if I can stand to see it. What a shame that Branagh plays LKO for laughs!

  2. Great review, Kendra. You basically gave it the same grade that I did. I’ve never read Colin Clark’s memoir or watched the documentary but I found a lot of his story a little hard to believe — to the point where I just assumed most of his scenes with Marilyn in the film were largely fictitious.

    I actually liked Branagh. Didn’t love him, but I thought he was good. That being said, I’m not as familiar with him as you are and that makes a huge difference!

    Great review!

    1. I quite liked the books and documentary. I thought they were fun, even if they weren’t true. I don’t think Branagh’s acting was bad, but I just didn’t like the way he/Simon Curtis chose to portray Larry. It’s a pity Marilyn was the only person whose personality and life was explored with a bit more depth!

  3. It’s a shame that the film didn’t do better by the Oliviers. Branagh actually IS a very good actor; I wonder, if he’d directed himself in this, if his performance might have been less caricature and more Larry.

    1. Quite possibly. it’s not that I thought his acting in itself was bad, I just really didn’t like the way he portrayed Laurence Olivier! He does get the best lines, but they’re for comic relief, methinks.

  4. EXCELLENT REVIEW! I just sat here giggling at my desk as I read it. I have the same view of Marilyn Monroe as you do-I understand that she’s important to film history but she annoys me and I think she’s overrated. I guess the portrayal of Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier don’t really surprise me. I feel like any current portrayal of lifestyles and stars in the 30s, 40s and 50s are really typical and shallow. It’s a shame that is was so hammy.
    I really think my favorite part of this whole thing is when you said Kenneth could be served up for Christmas dinner! hahahaha.
    Also, I agree with you, he certainly didn’t have the bone structure Larry had. Kenneth is actually pretty flabby.
    I really enjoyed this review, I may rent the movie once it comes out on DVD (not showing near me) just so I can say I’ve seen it.

    1. Thanks!! The film didn’t show much of anyone’s lifestyle except Marilyn’s. it was just the way their personalities were portrayed. For example, in the beginning when they all take this group photo (which really happened), and Vivien says something to Colin that makes him respond, ‘I’m sure he loves you very much.” And she says (dramatically) “Oh, Colin, don’t be such a boy. I’m 42. pretty soon no one will love me anymore.” Wah waaaah. It’s like really? Really lady whose name is Vivien Leigh? This is such a typical Hollywood stereotype for the middle aged woman. Gag me.

      Luckily I saw it for free. if I had to do my usual film rating, i’d say it’s worth 5 or 6 out of £13.

  5. If it’s any consolation, the film doesn’t do Marilyn many favours either. Clark’s tale of an affair is almost certainly a lie (he didn’t even mention it until his first book sold better than expected.) I liked Michelle’s performance but I agree, Branagh was disappointing – as were most of the cast, unfortunately. The script and direction were the real stumbling blocks, however.

    1. I agree that the real fault lies in the script and direction. it’s disappointing there wasn’t more insight into the other characters. I won’t even start on the portrayal of Vivien, haha.

  6. Good work, Kendra … I think you may have just saved me the price of admission!

    I’m curious, though, as to what you thought of Julia Ormond’s performance as Vivien (?). From what you said about her “cliched portrayal”, I’m not sure whether you think the acting or the writing is at fault (although I suspect the latter). I remember that Catherine Zeta-Jones was the original 1st-choice for this role, and I wonder if you think she might have been better. Too bad this wasn’t filmed when Jane Seymour was in her 40’s, as I think she could have done well with it. Of course, she almost played the part 30+ years ago when there was talk of filming Anne Edward’s bio of Vivien. I read somewhere in the past couple of years that Jane Seymour still has her sights set on playing Vivien … this time in some sort of film about the final years of her life. Not sure what I think about that, as it will probably be some sub-par movie-of-the-week on the LIFETIME channel!

    1. Well, she’s literally in it for about 5 minutes and has a total of about 6 lines, so it’s hard to judge her performance. But yes, the writing is very much at fault. This film doesn’t make much effort to delve beneath the surface of the characters. All that’s displayed is the current preconceptions about these celebrities (i.e. two crazy women and an asshole hammy actor). Rather annoying. I don’t think anyone really got much justice.

  7. Kendra,this time I really share all your views.but then I asked myself in the first place: How dare they??!!I I could never accept that Branagh was called the heir apparent to LO.On the other hand why do you even deign to give a thought to people who think that LO was camp etc- they just don’t know anything—their opinion should disturb you as much as a duck is disturbed by water—just let it run off! But your comments are good in so far as they don’t really entice anyone to go and see this sh…. of a film! Thanks, Renata

    1. I think Colin Firth would have made a better Larry (and I might just be saying that because I actually like Colin Firth). As i said, the film wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t care for the way most of the characters were portrayed. It’s definitely a frothy film with little depth to it, a fact thinly disguised by an “all-star” cast and pretty cinematography. I wouldn’t pay money to see it again.

  8. IMHO Kenneth has Larry pinned down OK judging by the trailers and pictures I’ve seen. I doubt I can see the movie before DVD in Germany, but judging by several articles, as in the Guardian, Larry and Viv are supporting roles, it’s all Marilyn and her love struck aid.

    In fact I don’t care for said storyline but look forward to Kenneth’s performance. Your damning it for the lack of bone structure (he did have make up) makes me want to see it even more. I’m positive he rocks. Larry, sorry to say, was a bitch while making this picture, he should have known what he was in for with Marilyn and her approach to acting and still went for it, deniying Vivien the part she played on stage. It was for the PR and the money – always an issue with Lord Olivier – and him looking hip combining with MM.

    As for Vivien, I posted my suggestion for the part earlier here, Sean Young, she has the age and cat like persona Ms. Ormond just doesn’t carry. But well, for 6 sentences I guess I can cope.

    1. I take it you’re not an Olivier fan! Actually, I wasn’t damning Branagh’s bone structure (not all men can have Larry’s killer cheek bones), just observing. No, the thing that bothered me most about his performance was how ridiculously camp it was–much moreso than even Olivier was in The Prince and the Showgirl! It was apparent he was having fun, but I wasn’t. Perhaps you will enjoy it more than I did.

  9. Eek! I am wondering about it now. People say Williams and Branagh will stack up award nominations but from reading your review I’m curious as to how Branagh will. Perhaps I will take the plunge and go and see for myself so I can judge.

    1. He probably will, actually, because he’s a rather “well respected” actor and is playing an historical figure. Do I agree with this? Not really. But did I agree with someone like Sandra Bullock winning an Oscar? Not really. My opinion doesn’t count though, lol. Anyway, if you do go and see it, I’d be interested to hear your opinion. As a film it’s not horrible, but I didn’t care for the portrayals of my two favorite people.

  10. I’m on the fence with this film because I don’t like/can’t stand Marilyn Monroe but then again, I kind of want to just so I can put in my own two cents about it but I’m not really expecting much going in, to be honest!

    I’ll probably feel the same way as you when “Get It While You Can” comes out (Janis Joplin means to me what Viv and Larry mean to you) so I can only image how you feel right now!

  11. Thank you for the insight. I’m anxious to see this one, primarily as a Larry and Viv fan. I was already planning on keeping the expectations knee-level, but maybe now I’ll shift them down even lower, possibly ankle-level.

    I just knew they’d exploit Leigh’s mental state and oh-so decrepit age, even if Ormond only is in it for five minutes or whatever.

    I like what you say about how you appreciate Monroe’s presence, which is what I think more people should do instead of fixating so much on her personal life and the myth surrounding her persona. I completely understand lauding the mix of comic spaciness and touching vulnerability she brings to the screen, but turning her into some sort of tragic goddess is a bit excessive. Not to belittle the troubles she had in life, which were genuine, but frankly, there were actresses out there who had even more pressing tragedies in their lives than what everyone claims was Marilyn “not being understood” or “not being properly loved.” Take a look at the lives of, say, Gene Tierney, Susan Peters, or even Vivien during the worst of her depressive episodes–actresses who are comparatively forgotten today (except for Vivien, who obviously and deservedly still has a sizable fanbase, thanks mostly to GWTW).

    Why can’t Marilyn simply be an icon of what she projected onscreen, that of a sexy gal who could be ditzy and blonde on the one hand while touching and sweet on the other, without becoming crass or vulgar? If she hadn’t committed suicide, would we even bother dissecting her personal life the way we do now? Would we still fawn all over her failings like she was a precious porcelain doll instead of thinking maybe she was just a flawed but nice human being, like the rest of us? It comes to a point where we’re not so much making a tribute to her as we are stalking her ghost like a horde of paparazzi aiming for another snapshot of Lohan panty-less. Only we get away with it more because we make sure to say Marilyn’s a misunderstood goddess while we obsess over her.

    Anyways, I’ve gotten a bit ranty. Thank you again for the detailed summary! I’ll probably be blogging about this one myself once I see it (and probably parroting a lot of what I’ve already said here.)

    1. What this film does is basically take every common preconception about these people and magnify it without delving beneath the surface to examine why they might be feeling this way. What we’re treated to is two crazy bitches and an egocentric, jerk of a director. Very disappointing. There’s no depth whatever to this movie. They also grab famous quotes from other sources to unsuccessfully enhance the characters. For example, Marilyn’s famous ‘Every little girl should be told she’s beautiful.” Pull out a tiny violin, already. It just doesn’t work in this scenario. They also have Olivier quoting from The Entertainer, which wouldn’t have happened at this time as it hadn’t been written yet! Most people who see the film probably wouldn’t pick up on these nuances, but fans will probably be annoyed. I know I was!

      I also agree with you about the way Marilyn is fawned over today. I don’t see her as a victim of Laurence Olivier at all. I think she was a victim of her own problems. People have left a number of comments on this site over the years calling Olivier a “bully” and “horrible man” (which is how he’s portrayed in this film) because he didn’t “understand her”. I always think, why? Because he was the director of the film and didn’t tolerate people’s bullshit and unprofessionalism on his set? Okay.

  12. I haven’t seen the film as yet,but I have seen a couple of clips.V.L was it seems as far off the mark as possible.Arch and campy are two words that spring to mind! Which is odd if,as you say,she was only on screen for a few would think the actress playing her would have done a bit more delving into the character! Speaking of suitable actor to play L.O,had it been made 15 or so years ago they could of used an actor called John Duttine who I always thought was the dead spit of Larry….Hey ho, bio pics are invariably viisted upon us to make us squirm!!

    1. Both VL and LO are portrayed as arch and extremely campy. I think part of this is to emphasise a sort of metaphorical gap between these classical “has beens” and Marilyn and the new wave of up and coming method actors. Annoying that everyone in this film is so cliche!

  13. People here seem to be a bit too harsh on the actors, and I don’t really feel like it’s any of their faults (well, maybe, Dougray Scott).

    I feel it was the Direction of the film – cutting the wrong places and not giving the actors the secured direction they probably needed.

    I know Kenneth Branagh has huge respect for Olivier, though he’s always hated the comparison, even saying no to playing him, in the past. I think they all meant well, but if you don’t have the right director to pull it off, well…..!

    1. You’re right, the direction and screenplay is largely at fault, but for me it didn’t diminish my annoyance at the way the characters were portrayed. Perhaps if it weren’t such light fare it would have been more interesting. But I did feel like this film took the common preconceptions of people like Marilyn, Vivien and Larry and magnified them, so what we ended up with are two crazy women and a really mean egomaniac. Disappointing, really. I also just felt the film was extremely shallow and the more I think about it, the more I dislike it.

      I could tell Branagh was having a lot of fun playing Olivier, but watching him gave me some serious second-hand embarassment–I mean much more than i’ve ever felt watching the real Laurence Olivier on-screen (and I’ll be the first to admit he was quite camp in some of his films). It annoyed me that he played Olivier the person campier than Olivier played some of his characters.

  14. Thnaks for sharing, nice thinking i don’t like/can’t stand Marilyn Monroe but then again, I kind of want to just so I can put in my own two cents about it but I’m not really expecting much going in, to be honest! keep up it.

  15. Thank you Kendra, for a great review. I absolutely trust your judgement on this film because I know you love and admire Viv & Larry just as much as I do! I have made the decision NOT to see this film because it would greatly upset me and they’d throw me out of the theater because I’d be yelling at the screen! I’ll wait until its offered by our cable company to watch it, then I can yell and make all the comments I want.
    The good news is the Senator Theater in Baltimore, MD is showing “Gone With The Wind” on its wide screen this week, and my friend and I are going to see it. This is the first time for me and I’m really excited! The last time I saw a classic film at this theater was the night Ingrid Bergman past away and they showed “Gaslight”. Now I’m looking forward to GWTW!

    1. I seem to be more annoyed at the portrayal of Larry than I am about the portrayal of Vivien. This is probably because the Vivien character is only a small blip on the radar. But there were several instances where I literally whispered “what the f*ck, really? out loud. Not a good sign, methinks.

      Well now GWTW is worth the price of admission! Enjoy your experience!

  16. Ok, I finally saw this movie last night… and I loved it! But I just finished reading your review (which was great and totally on point) and have to agree with most of your points. Emma Watson’s character was not necessary… at least, they didn’t need to cast such a well known actress. But also, since I don’t know a lot about the Oliviers or Monroe, I thought the film was pretty great! Great in a shallow way, I guess. 😉

    1. Yeah, I can see how non-fans would like it. Its pretty light-hearted and fluffy and non-boring. But I really hated the way a majority of the characters were portrayed. Everyone was so shallow, I just didn’t care about any of them. And the Vivien Leigh character–seriously? I wanted to slap her despite her only being in it for 5 minutes. On the whole, I felt like it was made for tv, which I think is the aesthetic BBC films tend to take on (maybe it’s a budget issue), and I don’t think it’s award-worthy in any way

  17. I have been putting off seeing the film as I am a Marilyn fan and from the clips I’ve seen from the film, Williams just isn’t good enough, in all respects. This review is fantastic, and I totally agree that the minute I heard Branagh was picked to play Olivier, I was just thinking… you’ve been waiting to play him all your life. From your description, the film sounds exactly like what I thought it would be like – a film that included as you said ‘some of the most famous personalities of the 20th century’, but failed to show that they ‘were legends in their own time and they embodied an aura of glamour and mystique that was so essential to classic Hollywood cinema’. But the fact is, that when people make these films, they don’t have a clue about the time period, of classic Hollywood, and have probably only read the mini biographies on imdb to get an idea of the characters. And that is what I cannot stand, how can you write a screenplay, or direct actors in a film WELL, when you don’t know enough about the characters or the time period. I will watch this film in the future, but I will not be expecting anything from it, but a feeble bit of entertainment, full of caricatures of some of the greatest actors and most beloved stars the screen has ever seen. Thank you for this review.

  18. I saw the film at a nearby old-fashioned theatre and loved my experience, however I loved it for it’s fun, and certainly not for it’s truth. I am a fan of both Vivien Leigh and Marilyn and I have to say I was disappointed by much of their portrayals, but I just set that aside. It was a beautiful and light-hearted movie, despite it’s flaws, and it was enjoyable to see around Christmas-time with my mom and snow outside wearing a Santa hat!! 🙂 I know almost nothing about Olivier other than that he was married to Vivien and was in Cleopatra, a favorite movie of mine, so I had no comments on that (other than, who is that fat guy?? I am so confused!!!), but the thing that did bother me to the point where my stomach hurt a little was the choice of actress for Vivien’s part and how she didn’t resemble nor possess any personality traits similar to her in the least bit. But I still had a wonderful time 🙂 Couldn’t help myself! Maybe we’ll call it a guilty pleasure movie for the fans who do enjoy it lol.

  19. Dear Ms Bean
    Am a bit late to still comment on this article, but wanted to commend your honesty. I’m sure to watch a movie that features personalities you’ve reasearched so extensively about and care about is different to when some-one without all the background knowledge watches the film. Thus, you see K. Branagh’s Interpretation of L. Olivier as something else entirely. I admire Mr Branagh, and also Marilyn Monroe, who I think had great talent, but was plagued by insecurities. Like you say – M. Williams really made an effort to also portray her vulnerability. I think she did great. I do understand that you don’t feel J. Ormond’s Interpretation had much to do with V. Leigh But I’m saying that as some-one who’s just trying to learn about her through your excellent Website. Sorry by the way for having already left several comments, but Keep discovering new things on the site.
    Did you find an actress by know you feel could play Vivien Leigh? I’ve watch “The Deep Blue Sea” with Rachel Weisz and there were moments when I thought she might be able to play Vivien L. But maybe you hate the thought? Kind regards

  20. Just watched the film and thought it was entertaining even if it did look like a young man’s fantasy. I thought Michelle Williams gave a good performance of Marilyn but didn’t quite pull it off. The only actress that possibly could was Scarlett Johansson.

    I agree the biggest disappointment was Kenneth Branagh. He was seriously miscast in that role and was nothing like I remember Olivier. Yes Julia Ormond was nothing like Vivien Leigh but it was such a minor part it hardly mattered.

%d bloggers like this: