After working some 20 years in British film and television, Simon Curtis this week makes his big-screen directing debut with “My Week with Marilyn,” a movie about making a movie.
In the film, which opens Wednesday, Michelle Williams stars as Marilyn Monroe in 1956, at a crucial turning point in the actress’ life, when she is tired of being a giggly sex symbol and wants to be taken seriously.
Having recently married playwright Arthur Miller and taken a part in Laurence Olivier’s new movie, “The Prince and the Showgirl,” her insecurity comes out on the set; she finds solace in a flirty relationship with a young third assistant director.
“It’s a moment in time, it’s not a biopic,” says Curtis, who produced 1996’s “Twelfth Night” with Helena Bonham Carter, and 1997’s “Mrs. Dalloway” with Vanessa Redgrave. “Apart from all the emotional ramifications, this is the story of all those things collapsing before her.”
Williams is magnificent in a daunting part, as a great 20th-century icon. She finds a subtle connection between her own experience and Monroe’s mysteries.
“I think all actors identify with their characters at some point,” says Curtis. “All performances are a collision between an actor and a character. Michelle is very different from Monroe, but I think that all actresses can understand some of those dilemmas in Marilyn’s life.”
Likewise, Kenneth Branagh perfectly embodies the great Olivier in a fascinating hybrid, remarkable given that the two have been linked since the early days of Branagh’s career.
“Ken is the same age now that Olivier was in 1956,” says Curtis of the serendipitous casting. “It’s been a quarter of a century in the making.”
Curtis’ production was filled with happy accidents; it also used many of the same sets and locations as “The Prince and the Showgirl.” He says, “It just got richer and richer, because there’s so much material.”
Sadly, the behind-the-scenes story in “My Week with Marilyn” is more interesting than Monroe’s film.
“I like bits of it,” says Curtis. “It’s not a great film, of a not-great play. But it has some wonderful things in it. Marilyn is breathtaking in moments, such as the little dance that Michelle does so well.”
Though she is still a mysterious icon, spending so much time on Monroe has given Curtis some ideas: “I think she was happiest when she was just doing reaction shots, like she was modeling. Like Olivier says, you don’t survive in Hollywood unless you’re super-tough and super-smart.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh
Written by Adrian Hodges
Directed by Simon Curtis
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes