Director: Madonna (Filth and Wisdom)
Screenplay: Madonna, Alek Keshishian
Producers: Madonna, Kris Thykier, Colin Vaines
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 119 min.
There’s an interesting appeal to Wallis Simpson, the American socialite who stormed into England, stole Prince Edward’s heart and caused him to abdicate the throne in order to marry her. It’s a story that has been speculated on for decades and it’s easy to see the attraction. This is the type of stuff romantic dreams are made of, of love so strong people will do anything, give up anything, to pursue it.
Madonna’s W.E. delves into the romance from a different angle. It starts by paralleling the life of Wally Wintrop, a woman caught in an unhappy marriage to an abusive, philandering doctor and her romance with a Russian security guard at Sotheby’s which just happens to be hosting an auction of many of Edward and Wallis’ possessions (the auction catches her attention first, then the guard). Wintrop becomes obsessed with the couple, spending hours browsing the auction preview, re-living the moments that shaped W.E.’s relationship, all of it through the eyes of her namesake.
What’s interesting about W.E. is that it concentrates exclusively on the romance as it unfolded from Wallis’ perspective. She was a force to be reckoned with, a charming, independent woman who always knew exactly what to say and could mix a mean martini. As the romance develops and the story takes more of a focus on Wintrop’s doomed marriage, the story shifts and what started as an obsession which was fuelling one woman’s desires turns into a search for understanding. At one point, Wintrop muses that everyone goes on about what Edward gave up to be with Wallis but no one seems to care what Wallis, a commoner, gave up to be with him.
The concept behind W.E. has many possibilities some of which are expanded on here but the execution leaves much to be desired. Though Andrea Riseborough looks remarkably like Wallis and Abbie Cornish embodies the classic beauty of a bygone era, both women seem lost in their roles. Riseborough fares better because her story is more developed but Cornish is adrift. It’s a problem with the script which lacks both consistent tone and any sort of drive for her character. It’s never clear what it is about Wallis that appeals to Wintrop and why she becomes so obsessed with the woman. Wintrop admits that she’s looking for answers but it’s never clear as to what her questions are and what answers she’s looking for. Matters aren’t helped by some of Madonna’s choices as director: the unnecessary use of slow motion, the poorly executed POV switch most irritating when Wallis and Edward first meet… it’s like a showcase of what you can do with a camera with no understanding of why those particular choices are made and what they accomplish.
The one trugly good thing about W.E. is that it looks great. It certainly helps that the cast is full of beautiful people (I was thrilled to see Natalie Dormer in a small but great performance as Elizabeth) but the cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski is generally gorgeous as are the sets and costumes. It’s no surprise Arianne Phillips was nominated for an Oscar for her work here.
W.E. isn’t a complete waste of time but the execution doesn’t live up to the promise of the concept. At the hands of a different director and with a bit more polish on the script this could have been a great romantic drama but as it stands, it’s a largely forgettable blip from a director who gets attention for being who she than for the quality of her work behind the camera. That said, I do love that Madonna is determined to tell women’s stories and W.E. is a great improvement from her first film; at this rate she may deliver a good movie in the coming years.
W.E. is available on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 5th.
DVD Extras: None.
Click “play” to see the trailer: