Directed by Madonna. Written by Madonna, and Alek Keshishian. Starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R.
Madonna's entire career has been about shiny surfaces, so we shouldn't be surprised that the forever "material girl" would choose shallow subjects from her directorial vanity project; but one would be hard-pressed to find two more vapid historical figures to hang a drama around than King Edward VIII, and his paramour Wallis Simpson, the divorcee he threw everything away for. This is the reverse angle of the story from The King's Speech, but told from the perspective of Mrs. Simpson, who succeeded in luring her regal beau out of the spotlight and into infamy. He had an empire in his hands on the precipice of global war, but abdicated the crown to fritter away his days and his money with his socialite lover, an American commoner no less. It was a move that profoundly scandalized the kingdom and the world, but, thanks to six decades of propaganda, has been morphed into the grandest of romantic tragedies.
Madge and co-writer Alek Keshishian (Truth or Dare) stumble into a trap that a second-year screenwriting student might avoid, setting up a two-tiered structure where the life of the Duchess of Windsor is conflated to the life of a modern-day New Yorker trapped in an unhappy marriage. Abbie Cornish plays Wally, who's obsessed with Wallis, and with the Sotheby's auction of her possessions, to the point where the elder woman sometimes appears to her as a ghost or a hallucination, in groaningly obvious fashion. The feisty Andrea Riseborough gives Wallis some spark and creeping sensuality, but she's essentially working in a vacuum. The other performers, especially James D'Arcy, are more like handsomely appointed mannequins than actors; though they don't seem to have been given much in the way of helpful directorial tips. The usually wonderful Cornish seems lost, with too many long takes of her eyes looking empty and limpid.
As clueless as she is about acting, Madonna does have a legendary sense of style, and the movie is full of elegant trappings and interestingly composed shots. She's clearly learned a few tricks over the years from her music video directors like David Fincher, and the visuals in W.E. are rarely dull, though often overwrought.
The camera follows Wallis and Edward around a tree, not once but thrice, and when the camera lingers on a strand of pearls, you just know they are about to go flying, and they do in painfully slow motion. Other moments are laughably jarring; like when a '30s cocktail party is scored to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant." Indeed.
The Duke was a German appeaser, and he and his bride once dined with Hitler, though that is swept aside with just a line. It's clear that Madonna sympathizes with Simpson, and falls just short of lionizing her. It's hard not to read biographic clues into all this; the American party girl hounded by paparazzi, rejected by the British public and tainted by scandal; yet hungry for attention and respect, the poor little rich girl secretly adored by millions. Please.
Wallis Simpson may have been misunderstood, but we know Madonna all too well.