In 1956, Marilyn Monroe (Williams) arrives in England to star with Sir Laurence Olivier (Branagh) in The Prince And The Showgirl. Well-connected 23-year-old Colin Clark (Redmayne) gets a job as a production assistant, witnesses the clash of titanic egos and forms a brief intimacy with the emotionally fragile screen goddess.
The ‘my week’ chronicler in Simon Curtis’ entertaining ‘no business like show’ tale observes that Marilyn Monroe was a movie star who wanted to be a great actress, and Sir Laurence Olivier was a great actor who wanted to be a movie star. He ruefully concludes that The Prince And The Showgirl, a lack-much-lustre adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s comedy The Sleeping Prince, would serve neither’s purpose.
The hype around the film of the filming — scripted by Adrian Hodges from two memoirs by Clark, the first a journal of the shoot and the second a probably highly fanciful account of his alleged idyll with Monroe — centres on Michelle Williams’ impersonation. Williams pretty much nails the three faces of Marilyn in popular culture: needy little girl lost, intoxicating sexpot and spontaneous actress. Marilyn’s indefinable magic proves more elusive, but Williams does a nice job shedding her own mannerisms to channel Marilyn’s. Eddie Redmayne is endearingly callow as the adoring Clark, his enchantment with Marilyn making their flight from the uptight Brit contingent and hangers-on a chaste, childlike escapade.
Essentially this is an extended anecdote in which Kenneth Branagh steals the show, priceless as thespian and director Olivier, vain and anxious, his desire for Marilyn turned to hot indignation with her chronic insecurities keeping troupers like Dame Sybil Thorndike (a warm Judi Dench) waiting around for hours for Marilyn to put in an appearance and do a spot of acting. Whenever she does emerge she is accompanied by her Method mentor Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), whose coaching from the sidelines cranks up Olivier’s rage to incandescent.
A score of distinguished British actors flit through as Olde English all-sorts while others — Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones — oblige as loudmouth Yanks in the Hollywood parade passing through. Emma Watson gets a look in as the wardrobe assistant Colin makes a play for until he is distracted by Marilyn’s crises, crack-ups and uninhibited charms. It all adds up to nothing much really, but flashes of feeling and a bit of balloon-bursting keep it engaging.
At moments hilarious and others touching, it's a sweet, slight affair, more pretty pageant than pithy biographical drama. Expect awards nominations to stack up for Williams and Branagh.