Credits: Directed by Madonna and starring Abbie Cornish, Judy Parfitt, James Fox, Geoffrey Palmer, James D'Arcy, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle, Natalie Dormer, Andrea Riseborough, David Harbour and Haluk Bilginer.
Details: (MA15+), 119 mins, In Cinemas 3 May 2012, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: In 1998, lonely New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is obsessed with what she perceives as the ultimate love story: King Edward’s VIII’s abdication of the British throne for the woman he loved, American divorcée Wallis Simpson. But Wally’s research, including several visits to the Sotheby’s auction of the Windsor Estate, reveals that the couple’s life together was not as perfect as she thought. Weaving back and forth in time, the story intertwines Wally’s journey of discovery in New York with the story of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D’Arcy), from the glamorous early days of their romance to the slow unraveling of their lives in the decades that followed.
Scandalous royal romance gets uneven treatment from Madonna.
Directed by Madonna, W.E. appears as some sort of mutant screen romance: misshapen but full of desire and longing, with no real feeling. The structure of the story is ambitious. It’s frustrating, because at times it’s quite fun, and then it turns deadly dull. At first, it seems to be split into two narratives, separated by time and space.
One of these plots is in the ‘90s. (Why the ‘90s I don't know, and Madonna offers no clues.) Here, Abbie Cornish plays a twenty-something Manhattan housewife called Wally Winthrop. She is married to a philandering jerk psychiatrist called Bill (Richard Coyle). They live in an apartment the size of a palace. She wants to get pregnant. He doesn’t give a toss. When things come to a head, he hits her hard.
Wally has an obsession with Mrs. Wallace Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), who eventually married the Duke of Windsor (James D’Arcy), David to friends and family, but to the world he was King Edward VIII. He gave up the throne in 1936 for Simpson. There was a big scandal.
There’s a lot of talk of honour and passion, duty and sacrifice. In history, he gets a lot of sympathy. But Madonna and her co-screenwriter Alek Keshishian reckon that Simpson, a twice-divorced American, is treated, in the conventional re-telling of this yarn, somewhat shabbily. Here, she’s the hero. For Wally, Mrs. Simpson and the dethroned king are symbols of a romantic ideal: willing to give up so much to let love live.
The movie’s plotline switches between the Simpson/Edward affair and scandal of the ‘30s and Wally’s own struggles. Since Edward and Simpson had a quid, they could globe-trot. Madonna reduces their wealth and status to a boutique catalogue pageant of yachts, exquisitely appointed and accessorised rooms, castles and manicured lawns. It all looks like an ad for upscale living. No soul, but lovely. If I didn’t know better, I would think this visual attitude was intended to be ironic. But I don’t think so; Madonna seems turned on by objects. The film doesn’t have a lot of sex or even sweet sentiment (though, it is violent and nasty at times; she at least takes abuse seriously).
The movie’s energy and mood careens all over the shop. Sometimes Madonna cuts frantically, zooming into frames, then suddenly snapping to an overhead shot, making scale and shape abstract. Other moments seem so frozen, they’re like still lifes; when the actors move their mouths, you’re suddenly startled. Some episodes turn the movie into a hipster movie/music clip, as when Madonna has Simpson dance up a storm to the Sex Pistols ‘Pretty Vacant’ during one of Edward’s many ‘30s soirees. Is this irreverent? A goad at stuffy period filmmaking? A post-modern riff on just how outré the Simpson/Edward coupling was? Or is it a sop to Madonna’s fan-base? I dunno about any of those readings, but the ‘Pretty Vacant’ beat sure is silly.
The film, though, does have some striking ideas that speak to the tortured psyche of the characters. For instance, sometimes Wally talks to Wallace Simpson, on camera, like she’s talking to a ghost. You get the sense that therefore the Wallace/Edward plot element is not an independent action – a separate story – but is, in fact, taking place inside Wally’s ‘head’. Or is it? Just how we’re to ‘read’ these beats become mysterious and Madonna does not really cue us for the film’s wilder, stranger moves.
If W.E. sounds solemn and self-serious, and a little mad, it is, but Madonna and Keshishian aren’t above mocking the dweeby funk of Cornish’s character. At one point, Simpson’s spectre (or whatever she is) actually tells Wally to “get a life”.
Still, much of the narrative is mundane, literary and internalised. There’s a subplot set at Sotheby’s (no kidding). Wally was once a researcher there. As the film opens, the Windsor’s artifacts are up for auction. So Wally seems to spend her days trooping off to finger a champagne glass and think of Simpson and her courage. I think its real purpose is to offer Wally a romantic possibility. This turns out to be a Sotheby’s security guard called Oscar Isaac (Evgeni). He’s sweet to her. He plays the piano and encourages her to get her career back. This is so perfect that I thought Wally might be imaging him. No, he turns out to be real, and unbelievable.
Madonna is not much at rendering authentic emotion from her very talented cast. Everyone looks nice, whatever they’re wearing. Riseborough is perfectly styled and cool and strong but heartless – not her fault, I think. Abbie Cornish has a thankless part; she’s called on to cry and look sad, and most of the time she appears to have that dazed aspect of someone roused from a deep, drug- induced sleep.
W.E., then, is part art-movie, part airport novel, and part relationship advice column, and none of it makes sense most of the time. It’s all very pretty, so beautiful in fact, I kept on thinking I was watching a new kind of cinema – a sort of cine pop-up book, styled by House and Garden and Vogue – where all the luxe clothes and props move and glitter like real-life, only more so.
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