Take Meryl Streep out of the equation for her own consummate portrayal of a 20th-Century lady-legend and Michelle Williams would likely be the proud owner of an Oscar statuette (and we still give her an outside chance).
You can debate how accurately she embodies the icon – does her Marilyn match Meryl’s Maggie for uncanny technical precision? Not even close, with Williams occasionally missing the mark on Monroe’s voluptuous incandescence.
But where the actress scores (and arguably trumps Streep) comes in the tremulous emotional detail she brings to this spectacularly sad and messy superstar, lost in showbiz.
Fellow Oscar nominee Kenneth branagh also dazzles with a florid turn as Laurence Olivier. They’re buttressed by a raft of British thesps in Simon Curtis’ adaptation of a memoir about one man’s brief encounter with the tragic blonde supernova.
There’s ample viewing pleasure alone to be had watching Dame Judi Dench deliver a zesty take on Dame Sybil Thorndike, Julia Ormond waltz in and out as Olivier’s neurotic missus Vivien Leigh and Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper and Toby Jones serve up their own lively support.
If Emma Watson lets the side down, it’s only because her lovely-but-fictionalised costume girl doesn’t serve much purpose. The story takes place over a week (natch) in the summer of 1956, when Monroe arrives in England to shoot The Prince And The Showgirl with co-star/director Olivier, finding an unlikely on-set confidant in 23-year-old dogsbody Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne).
Based on Clark’s fantastic recollections (fantasy possibly being the operative word, with doubts cast on how much he fluffed up his recollections), Curtis’ film strikes a tidy balance between sympathy for Monroe and the exasperation felt by those working with the chronically unreliable bombshell – especially for a die-hard old luvvie like Olivier.
The early scenes are the film’s best and funniest (although the Golden Globes slotting it into their comedy category was pushing it), as Monroe relies on leechy hangers-on to cocoon her from Olivier’s prickly moods.
Branagh’s performance is laced with wit and bite, the movie sorely missing him when he’s not on screen – which is most of the second half as Monroe and Clark’s relationship evolves into a quasi-romance.
Curtis’ direction errs on the side of small-screen, but Williams transcends any such limitations, bringing the needy vulnerability of a woman who’s slave to her celebrity to captivating, poignant life. Add in glorious set and costume design and anyone spellbound by Hollywood history won’t regret their 99 minutes with Marilyn.