The big question on everyone's minds before W.E. world premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year was, can Madonna direct? Her little-seen 2008 debut feature, Filth and Wisdom, had been a kind of low-budget trial run at filmmaking, while here she was investing her own resources into a historical story about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (hence W.E.).
The film would at least attract attention because it was about the British Royals and releasing at a time when they are again incredibly popular because of another love match, The Duchess and Duke of Cambridge, or Kate and William. That the Queen of Pop would also infuse so much of herself into the story of Edward abdicating to be with the twice-divorced American could only make it more appealing.
Madonna, when writing the screenplay with Alek Keshishian, her collaborator on her 1991 documentary In Bed with Madonna, was drawing on her own experience of moving to England and her subsequent marriage to her now ex-husband, film director Guy Ritchie. She would create another character, New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), as a kind of observer looking back on how Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D'Arcy) lived and dealt with the fall-out of the abdication, as Wally struggles to make a go of her own upscale marriage in 1998 and becomes entranced by Simpson's heirlooms at Sotheby's.
“I think the character of Wally is all of us,” Madonna says. “We are going on this journey, we are picking up these objects with her, we are reading about the Duke and the Duchess and we are discovering that nothing is what it seems. Nothing is either completely right or completely wrong. Life is grey. It's not black and white.”
Relating again to herself, Madonna says the British Royalty were the stars of their day and had to weather all the media attention. “Edward VIII was really like a movie star—he was classically handsome and people were in love with him. To erase the memory of this woman sweeping him off his feet, they had to plant all sorts of stories about her and make her appear to be this sorceress. I think people have done that since the beginning of time to powerful women or to women who have held power over men.”
She doesn't believe Wallis and Edward were Nazis; it was just another claim that was intended to diminish them, she says. “I did as much research on that as possible; I was looking for that empirical proof and I couldn't find it."
Through her research, Madonna even doubts that Edward wanted to be king. As she says, he was too busy having a good time (as we saw when he was played by Guy Pearce in The King's Speech as well). In a revealing 1930s glamorous party scene set to the Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant', the revellers imbibed Benzedrine cocktails.
Is that based on fact? “Absolutely. They all liked to have fun!
“I felt like Edward was very punk rock. I thought playing a Sex Pistols song perfectly illustrated his aesthetic. He was a rebel and he didn't want to do things. He was very anti-establishment and the establishment feared him because of that. He liked to dress in a crazy way. His father was always screaming at him about wearing bright coloured socks and plaid suits and he used to stick his pants inside of his socks and wear big hats and he was always riding horses too fast and driving too fast.”
The biggest revelation of the film, though, is Riseborough. We've seen the 30-year-old Brit in Brighton Rock and in supporting roles in Made in Dagenham and Never Let Me Go, yet W.E. has been her ticket to fame as she astounds with her tightly wound portrayal as the fastidious and always elegant Simpson. (She is currently filming Oblivion alongside Tom Cruise and stars in James Marsh's upcoming IRA thriller, Shadow Dancer.)
“It was interesting for me exploring Wallis's internal life and how it manifested in such a fastidious perfectionism,” Riesborough explains. “Why did she feel a need to validate herself with jewellery and gowns? I don't think it was conscious, but it was something that made her feel that she had worth—and really she enjoyed it.”
At the same time, though, Simpson had a terrible stomach ulcer. (Think Kurt Cobain.) “She couldn't eat and that's why she was so terribly thin,” Riseborough continues. “She was the thinnest woman on the planet. Her weight would fluctuate sometimes; she would have a period of having a decent stomach, and then eat a little and have three trouts and two ears of corn, and then kind of lie in a state of total pain and then not eat again for weeks and weeks. Because she was so thin she had to kind of make thin beautiful, hence her famous line, 'A woman can't be too rich or too thin'. But that was really her being incredibly tenacious and being able to turn a situation on its head and make it work to her advantage.”
The saddest moments in the film are in the later years when the couple lived on the outskirts of Paris near the Bois de Boulogne.
“They had a horrible period of isolation where Edward was made redundant by his own Royal family, and by the British Government, who sought very actively to ensure that he was not let back into Britain or given any kind of responsibility,” Riseborough explains. “It was important for the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to do that, because otherwise Bertie and Elizabeth could not have taken over as the perfect Royal family that they then came to be known as and loved.”