Film review – My Week with Marilyn (2011)

19 February 2012
My Week with Marilyn: Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams)

Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams)

In 1957 Marilyn Monroe stared in The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Sir Laurence Olivier, the film’s director and co-star. According to Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn, Monroe saw this collaboration as an opportunity to extend her range as a serious actor while Olivier saw it as a chance to get a taste of Hollywood glamour. The result was a turbulent set of conflicting motivations as witnessed by future filmmaker Colin Clark, who at the time had just left university and was doing his first job as an assistant director. Clark’s two published accounts of his experiences, which detail his relationship with Monroe, form the basis of Curtis’s film. Similar to Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008) My Week with Marilyn is partly a coming-of-age/love story, partly a study of fame and partly a once-removed biopic where the famous person at the centre of the film, in this case Monroe, is viewed through the eyes of an unknown.

My Week with Marilyn begins as something of a light-hearted romp. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Clark is initially presented rather broadly as a poor rich boy, whose show-business aspirations are something of a disappointment to his upper class, overachieving and restrictive family. Once on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl he experiences both the welcoming and nurturing side of filmmaking in the guise of Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), as well as the bullying, condescending and inpatient nature of the biz through Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Olivier. However, Olivier is not completely unsympathetic and some of his annoyances and frustrations are understandable if not always reasonable. My Week with Marilyn suggests that Olivier was both threatened and in awe of Monroe and her devotion to method acting.

Once Monroe (Michelle Williams) becomes a central part of the narrative, the film becomes significantly more interesting. Williams captures the vulnerability, allure and transcendent appeal of Monroe perfectly. She does not mimic Monroe and Curtis seems to have deliberately avoided making Williams precisely look the part. The result is a performance that captures Monroe’s essence rather than focusing on superficial surface appearances. That essence was Monroe’s contradictory and sometimes self-destructive relationship with fame. She yearned to be taken seriously as an actor rather than be seen as a kooky sex symbol and yet, as portrayed in the film, she continually defaulted back to publicly playing the part of a coy sex bomb. My Week with Marilyn captures the great sadness of a woman who played up to her glamorous image despite despising it.

The film begins with one of Monroe’s performances, which cuts between the actual performance as it is being filmed and then shots of that projected image in a cinema, to establish Monroe’s identity as a movie star who existed for so many as a projection. Throughout the film she is constantly being photographed and illuminated with spotlights, always on display and under scrutiny. Often the film cuts to still photos of her to suggest a constant attempt to freeze a moment in time and trap her image. Even telling Monroe’s story as a snapshot from the point-of-view of Clark reveals how Monroe’s existence had so much to do with her being a public figure being forever viewed through the eyes of others.

Underneath the film’s conventional dramatic flourishes and fun references to other celebrities of the era is a sweet and melancholic story. Rather than being a full blown biopic attempting to cover her entire life, My Week with Marilyn presents the conflicting and complex nature of who she was on- and off-screen by focusing on one week in her life through the eyes of an at-the-time industry outsider. After The Prince and the Showgirl Monroe went on to deliver her finest comedic performance in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Some Like It Hot (1959) and her finest dramatic performance in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) before dying in 1962 at the age of 36. When Williams as Monroe says to Clark, ‘Don’t forget about me’, she’s not asking him to not forget the most famous woman in the world, but she is saying to him ‘Don’t forget me as a real person who was your friend’ and to the audience ‘Don’t forget I was a serious and talented actor.’

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

31 May 2011
Meek's Cutoff: Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)

Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)

At first glance Meek’s Cutoff feels like a western in name only as apart from its time and place – the Oregon Trail in 1845 – it doesn’t seem to bare many of the other features that define what a western is. Based on a story about a group of emigrants who became lost in the Oregon Desert, with inspiration taken from the diary records of women who lived during the period, Meek’s Cutoff feels more like a social-realist film that happens to have a period setting. The focus on the monotony of day after day of travel and chores, plus the naturalist performances, situates Meek’s Cutoff in closer proximity to independent director Kelly Reichardt’s previous understated films rather than classical Hollywood or revisionist westerns. However, through Reichardt’s subversion of many of the western’s generic traits, Meek’s Cutoff does become a sort of unique anti-western and explores the genre’s general theme of what it means to be civilised.

Reichardt depicts the landscape not as a frontier that can be tamed, but as an all encompassing and vast element that the characters are at the mercy of. Long shots are frequently employed to re-enforce how small and vulnerable the human figures are within the landscape, where they are literally lost and increasingly in need of water. Dialogue and music are minimal with the ambient sounds of the windswept plains dominating the soundtrack. Elements of nature, such as bushes and tree branches, are often filmed in the foreground of shots to overlap the characters. The results are almost like watching a documentary and the combination of static shots and slow camera movements sometimes evokes the meditative style of Yasujirō Ozu’s films. It is achingly beautiful to look at.

Meek's Cutoff: Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood)

Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood)

Meek’s Cutoff also contains a strong political allegory. The settlers are lost in the wilderness because of the mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) whom they hired to take them over the Cascade Mountains.  They placed their trust in Meek and now he has led them astray, although it is unclear whether this is due to him being incompetent or having a more sinister agenda. In order to deflect attention from his immense failings, Meek resorts to stirring up racial hatred against their Native American prisoner, known simply as The Indian (Rod Rondeaux), in order to make him into the group’s scapegoat. The interaction between the group serves as a microcosm for what has happened in recent contemporary politics, particularly in America, when charismatic leaders drum up resentment against ‘the other’ to deflect attention away from their own inadequacies.

Reichardt’s final significant subversion of the western tradition is that she delivers the point-of-view of the female characters, as opposed to the men, and later also the perspective of The Indian. Throughout the film The Indian, Meek and one of the women Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) gradually take on particular characteristics to reflect various social attitudes and power struggles. The way the characters perceive each other, especially The Indian and Emily, becomes the core of the film. Reichardt ultimately resolves the various tensions through her representation of perception, as opposed to conventional narrative closure. By privileging the dynamics between the characters over story, Reichardt has created an extremely rewarding cinematic experience that is rich in political commentary, pathos and visual beauty.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Blue Valentine (2010)

23 December 2010
Blue Valentine: Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)

Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)

Blue Valentine is a film about the beginning and end of a relationship. Told in a parallel narrative structure, it’s present day scenes depict the breakdown of a marriage while the beginnings of the relationship from six years earlier are revealed in flashback. Co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who has a background in making documentaries, Blue Valentine takes a non-judgemental and observant approach to the dynamics of the relationship that it explores. While there are multiple small reasons for why the relationship sours there is no singled fixed explanation for why it ultimately stops working. Nor is there any attempt to allocate blame to either person and similarly to other marriage-in-crisis films such as Eyes Wide Shut and Revolutionary Road, attempting to argue who was more at fault is futile and misses the point of the film, which is that sometimes love just doesn’t work and that’s a tragedy.

While Cianfrance’s approach may be objective and non-judgemental that doesn’t mean it is not intimate and emotional. A lot of Blue Valentine is shot in a series of close-ups and medium close-ups to pull us into the world of the two characters Dean and Cindy, beautifully played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The tightly framed cinematography captures their every reaction, gesture and fleeting expression to communicate a wealth of information about what they are feeling. Both Gosling and Williams have been steadily establishing themselves as two of the finest contemporary actors when it comes to delivering nuanced, convincing and honest performances and their work in Blue Valentine cements this. The combination of restraint and raw emotion displayed by the pair is extraordinary.

Blue Valentine:  Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

Part of the authenticity of Blue Valentine is its open depiction of the sexual dynamic between Dean and Cindy and how their physical intimacy reflects their emotional health. Sex in cinema is so often portrayed as either a titillating transgression, the ultimate symbol of a romantic union or the first moment of true commitment. All of these representations ignore how common sex is in everyday life for a lot of people, whether they are romantically involved or not. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs was an attempt to demystify sex by depicting a short affair through sexual encounters, but the overtly graphic nature of the unsimulated sex distracted from the film’s intent. The sex scenes in Blue Valentine, on the other hand, do succeed in conveying the status of the relationship. During the sections of the film before Cindy begins going out with Dean, we see her having sex with her previous boyfriend and the act is cold and impersonal. The contrast to Cindy’s first sexual encounter with Dean is dramatic as it displays his affection for her in a way that the eroticism of the act is also incredibly romantic. However, between these two flashbacks we see a present day scene where they are staying overnight in a gaudy themed hotel room and Dean is desperately trying to connect with Cindy by having sex with her. The frustrations, anger and resentment that both characters display at this failed encounter is incredibly painful to witness and made all the more bitter by the tender flashback scenes we see later.

Blue Valentine:  Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

The core moment in Blue Valentine is indeed one of the flashbacks where Dean and Cindy do connect and fall in love. It is not a sex scene nor is it a melodramatic outburst of emotion. Instead, it is a spontaneous moment where Dean and Cindy muck around on the street with the warm glow of a shop window providing a welcome juxtaposition to the gloomy blue light of the horrible hotel that we see them staying in six years later. In front of the shop window Dean sings and Cindy dances and the whole situation is goofy, messy and twee. It is also incredibly sweet and the continuous long shot effectively captures this moment of two people falling in love.

The final powerful moment of Blue Valentine is actually the end credits. With the final shot lingering in your mind, and the ramifications of what it means, the effect of the burst of music and having still photographs from the early days of the relationship behind the credits is absolutely devastating. Every once in a while a film arrives that is so honest, so expertly crafted and so sincere that the powerful emotional response it elicits is profound. Blue Valentine is one of those rare films. See it with somebody you are breaking up with.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Synecdoche, New York (2008)

10 May 2009
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)

There aren’t many writers working in film who have achieved the auteur status that is usually reserved for directors, but Charlie Kaufman is one of them. Audiences know to expect a Kaufman film to explore issues of identity and reality, to contain offbeat humour, to challenge the conventions of film narrative and to be filled with strange yet empathetic characters. With Synecdoche, New York Kaufman not only writes but also, for the first time, directs and the result is a film that is more Kaufmanesque than ever. Synecdoche, New York doesn’t reach the heights of the Spike Jonze directed films Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, and it doesn’t even come close to the masterpiece that is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michel Gondry), but it is an intriguing puzzle of a film about regret, memories, aging and façades.

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