“Be careful not to get into too deep, boy,” Marilyn Monroe’s British handler tells third-tier assistant director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) midway into the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” the 1956 romantic comedy that saw the drug-addled Monroe, then married to playwright Arthur Miller, fly to England to star with British stage titan Lawrence Oliver. Problem is, the advice comes after rich boy Colin has just emerged from skinny-dipping with the troubled star, with whom he’s fallen in love.
Director Simon Curtis’s story of misunderstood Marilyn — based on Clark’s memoir “The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn” — is both touching and over-scripted. Little is left to chance or inference, neither Olivier’s frustration nor Marilyn’s broken-girl insecurity. Impatient Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) wants a drop-dead gorgeous actress who also knows her part; vulnerable and capricious Monroe (Michelle Williams) is a spontaneous bundle of needy nerves enslaved to the Method Acting Olivier loathes. The first part of the film hams up Olivier’s frustration; the second traces Colin’s abortive dalliance with “misunderstood” Norma Jean, with Adrien Hodges’ script serving as a kind of talking head, with Olivier in the lead: “Trying to teach Marilyn how to act is like trying to teach Urdu to a badger!”
So much bluster does a disservice to Branagh, whose Olivier never really escapes caricature, and to Williams, who while pulling off a wonderful and often touching portrait of Marilyn is trapped in a one-note performance from which she gets no relief. Here’s a film with fine performances — including Julia Ormond as Vivian Leigh and Judy Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndik — that works too hard on telling audiences what it’s about, namely the pitfalls of stardom and vicissitudes of ego, as well as the power of being starstruck (Thorndike to Clark: “First love is such sweet despair, Colin.”) Charming, yes; period-perfect, yes; sweet, absolutely; but not once does the film sweat, let alone bleed.