Michelle Williams is more wiggle than jiggle as Marilyn Monroe, more a portrayal of an hourglass half-full than of a soul half-empty. It isn't for Williams' lack of commitment to an accurate survey of glam and doom. She spent months studying film and audio and reading about the fated actress, far more labor than Method-devotee Monroe ever managed. But her flirty, musical, often convincing performance is in the service of a boy's story.
Atop the silk and lipstick, director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges have imposed the tweedy nostalgia of their source material: two brisk memoirs by the late documentarian Colin Clark, the first winning and discreet, the second more self-serving. (Actor-model Eddie Redmayne is fine as lovestruck Colin; he's a transparent presence, the better not to block Williams' light.)
It's 1956, and Monroe has arrived in England to make The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, mostly starch). History repeats here, with major talent in a minor work. (None more major than Judi Dench, working like a Navy SEAL to keep her co-stars above water.)
At its best, Curtis' burnished, autumnal production recalls the less antic moments of 1982's superior Hollywood valentine My Favorite Year, down to the sweep of its Nat King Cole songs. Branagh, like Williams, is age-accurate to the filmic moment; at 50, he's also how old Peter O'Toole was in Year. He has one sharp scene conveying a Shakespearean awareness of time and human frailty. In tight close-up, applying makeup with the ferocity of the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, his Olivier makes acting look unpleasant and mechanical — the way Sir Larry understood it ought to be. In this moment, Curtis sets aside the ham long enough to hint that there aren't two styles of acting but rather two ways of preserving youth: pretend not to age or die. So goodbye, Norma Jean — but not till Colin and Marilyn go skinny-dipping. Oh, the trouble Williams (and Monroe) must endure for this: a young Englishman's first erection, preserved in amber.