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Blonde review: A brutal but beautiful look at Marilyn Monroe

The new film from writer-director Andrew Dominik is admirably compassionate and eye-opening, even if the outlandish style sometimes smothers the emotional impact.

Blonde review
Netflix
Published: Tuesday, 20th September 2022 at 11:16 am
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A star rating of 3 out of 5.

The savagery of mega-stardom is laid bare in this brutal but beautiful look at the desperately sad life of Norma Jeane Mortenson, better known as Marilyn Monroe, from writer-director Andrew Dominik. It’s based on the 2000 bestseller of the same name from Joyce Carol Oates, a fictionalised, though not entirely inaccurate, take on Monroe’s story.

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The New Zealand-born Dominik is known for his tough, unflinching portraits of masculinity through the ages: 2000’s Chopper launched actor Eric Bana onto the scene playing notorious Aussie crook Mark ‘Chopper’ Read; his epic 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford explored dishonour amongst thieves in the late 19th century and starred Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in the title roles; while Pitt returned in 2012’s Killing Them Softly, an ultra-violent neo-noir following a pair of hitmen.

Although foregrounding a woman marks a significant departure for the director, the film’s somewhat gruelling nature does not. With the Cuban star of No Time to Die and Knives Out, Ana de Armas, slipping into Monroe’s iconic attire (Lily Fisher plays the actress as a child), this near three-hour feature is like the MeToo version of Monroe’s story.

It highlights the various ways in which she was abused and exploited: from life with her mentally ill mother Gladys (grittily played by Julianne Nicholson); her horrific introduction to Hollywood; and beatings at the hands of her paranoid second husband, the New York Yankees baseball star Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale).

We see Monroe find sexual and emotional satisfaction from a ménage à trois with her friends Cass and Eddy (Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams), the disaffected sons of two Hollywood icons (Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson) – a potentially salacious detail that Dominik does something interesting with.

The shock value of such content is countered by the sensitive and soul-searching work of lead De Armas; her grasp on Monroe’s accent may not be entirely assured – it comes and goes a little – yet she’s enough of a bombshell to physically convince, performs as if possessed by the star, and retains our sympathy throughout.

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There’s almost no part of this movie that isn’t sad, with glimmers of hope that Monroe might find happiness especially heart-breaking, knowing what we know. The actress’s third and final marriage, to celebrated playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), offers her the potential for escape, before a miscarriage sends her spiralling, while her increased dependency on drugs during this time places her on the path that will ultimately lead to her death.

Blonde’s melancholic air is enhanced by sporadic lapses into monochrome (Chayse Irvin’s cinematography here is nothing short of sublime) and by a delicately mournful, Twin Peaks-evoking score from Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds’ bandmate Warren Ellis.

However, if there are bravura sequences which ingeniously immerse us in Monroe’s sometimes nightmarish world – including a humiliating encounter with Caspar Phillipson’s President Kennedy – Dominik’s flair for outlandish style sometimes smothers the emotional impact of the piece.

The film vividly brings back to life someone whose perfect image adorns so many walls, showing us what might have been going on behind the smiles, and emphasising Monroe’s intelligence.

It rages righteously at the industry and widespread misogyny that may have broken her; however, defining the actress by her trauma and disempowerment goes too far the other way, with Blonde often reducing this woman of substance and charisma to a photogenic victim, and her film roles getting relatively short shrift. Still, it’s an admirably compassionate and eye-opening effort which doesn’t half do a number on the Hollywood machine.

Blonde is released in select cinemas on Friday 23rd September and is available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday 28th September. Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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