The star herself acknowledges the parallels with Wallis Simpson, the central figure in her sophomore directorial effort, “W.E.,” which made its world premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday.
She ticked off their common traits: Americans married to Brits. A shared love of fabulous clothes. A sense of adventure. Tenacity, resourcefulness and resilience. But on a deeper level, Madonna said, she can relate to the limitations imposed by enormous fame _ or notoriety.
“I think once you become famous, you have to pretty much relinquish the idea that people are going to see you for who you are, or look beyond the surface of things,” Madonna told a small group of reporters. “I think that was a source of great frustration for Wallis Simpson and for Edward VIII, because after he abdicated, they didn’t really have the opportunity to defend themselves.
“So hopefully, I have been able to do that for Wallis Simpson through my film.”
Madonna spent several years researching before sitting down to write the film with Alek Keshishian, the director of her “Truth or Dare” documentary. What emerges is a sympathetic portrait of the oft-maligned Simpson that attempts to show what the American divorcee _ and not just the king _ sacrificed to marry in 1937.
“I think she felt an existential loneliness,” Madonna said.
“W.E.” _ short for Wallis and Edward, who are portrayed by Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy _ tells Simpson’s story through the eyes of a modern-day namesake who seeks solace from her unhappy marriage in the details of what in its day was considered the romance of the century.
Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes obsessed with a Sotheby’s auction of personal items that once belonged to Wallis and Edward, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The everyday objects _ an engraved cigarette case, a martini shaker _ become a sort of portal between the 1930s and 1998, the year of the real-life auction. In a testament to their enduring fascination, the sale totaled $23.4 million, three times Sotheby’s original estimate.
The movie covers the same period as last year’s Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech,” which focused on Edward’s brother Bertie, who strived to overcome a speech impediment as he was elevated to the throne in the wake of his brother’s abdication.
“I view the success off that film as laying the ground work for my film,” Madonna said. “There’s a little bit of history, and a little bit of knowledge. We are not starting from a blank slate.”
Much of Simpson’s inner life in the film is revealed by the Duchess’s correspondence with the Duke and other confidantes.
In the film, Wallace confides in a letter to her aunt, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out the great romance of the century, and to know I will have to be with him, always and always and always and always.”
Madonna read numerous books and films in her research and adamantly rejects contentions that Simpson was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, a point she seeks to rebut in the film.
“In fact, I believed she was a Nazi too, when I started my investigation. But after years of research, I could find no empirical evidence proving she was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer,” Madonna said.