Based on a diary from Colin Clark, the ‘hero’ of this film and brother to the more famous diarist, Alan, this recounts his lucky break in getting to work on the film set of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957, and getting close to the most famous actress, perhaps then the most famous person, in the world. Given his aristocratic and well-connected background, his lucky breaks could be said to start with being the son of a famous father, the art historian and TV presenter, Sir Kenneth. We see, both at the start of the film and a little later, just how reliant Colin was despite his stated aim in making his own way.
Colin (Eddie Redmayne) gets very close to Marylin Monroe emotionally and, though he falls in love with her sexually, the relationship remained platonic. Monroe is played by Michelle Williams, a spirited attempt (including singing) to recreate an icon that, for me, never really convinced in the original. This Marilyn is a sphinx, both vulnerable and devouring, sweet but also an emotional vampire who destroys the men in her life even as she struggles to cope with her own (admittedly overwhelming) life as a movie star. How much this was conscious is left open, though there are hints.
The Prince and the Showgirl was not a very successful film, commercially or artistically, and this tale suggests it was doomed from the start, old-school director/star Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, having great fun) not understanding Marilyn and her not being capable of producing what he wanted. Clark, or perhaps the screenwriters who adapted him, looks in a few places to be a little self-serving, seeing what no-one else does and there are a few clunking lines that play into our knowledge of Marilyn’s frailties but that could have been much better written. I also feel that he plays favourites somewhat, with Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) and particularly Sybil Thorndike (another Dame, Judi Dench) being perhaps too sanctified but then this was Clark’s diary. The film also overstates Monroe’s talent as an actress; while it is undoubtedly true that she was more natural on screen than many of the theatrically trained actors of the time, she was not the titan of acting ability the film occasionally would have us believe.
In the end, this film uses the backdrop of the film-within-a-film, and the fractiousness of its making, as the backdrop to its real theme, which is only in part Clark’s near-fling with a superstar. It’s about the bittersweet nature of first love as a rite of passage and it’s a lovely little tale, not deep but very affecting, and lovingly told.