It's easy to sniff at Madonna's sham remix of the historical events that form the basis of "W.E.," a film that twins Wallis Simpson's royal romance with King Edward VIII and the yearnings of a contemporary Manhattan socialite.
Revisionist rehabilitation — to put it charitably — isn't the central point of the movie. But since the story hinges on understanding Wallis Simpson (played by Andrea Riseborough) as an essentially sympathetic character, it wouldn't do to out her as a bigot with pro-Nazi leanings, despite the weight of historical evidence.
While it's acutely obnoxious the way Madonna goes out of her way to downplay and even deny the Nazi sympathies of Wallis and Edward (who gave up the throne to marry her), people who take their history lessons from Madonna deserve what they get. In any case, poor scholarship is the least of Madonna's sins in this scattershot, hollow mess of a film.
Wally Winthrop (played by Abbie Cornish) is a discontented, wealthy young modern-day woman saddled with a drip of a husband named William (Richard Coyle). He's an older, womanizing psychiatrist who is most comfortable when nursing beakers of amber-colored liquor and humiliating his wife.
Wally seeks refuge from these daily torments in fantasies about the life of Wallis and Edward. This connection to her historical namesake is deeply felt — her mother and grandmother also were obsessed with the Wallis-Edward romance.
Her flights of fancy are aided by her visits to a set of objects that belonged to Wallis and Edward on display at a 1998 exhibition at Sotheby's. Wally, formerly a crack researcher at Sotheby's, lingers over the objects, her devotions animating vignettes detailing critical moments in the Wallis-Edward romance.
Madonna is adept at capturing fleeting moments, but her director's eye seems permanently fixed on the superficial. Individual scenes are clipped and bizarrely focused on objects rather than characters. Her camera invariably establishes a mood by doting on jewelry, clothes, servants (these being of a piece with objects in the visual language of the movie) and furniture before flitting to the principals for a quick beat.
Perhaps it's no surprise that the singer known as the "Material Girl" should make a film that fetishizes objects. Despite the brevity and lightness of individual scenes, "W.E." feels long and drawn out, all out of proportion to its heft.
At Sotheby's, Wally is befriended by Evgeni (Oscar Issac), a handsome and vital Russian pianist and intellectual who is slumming it as a security guard. Why someone so gifted and (to judge by his shabby chic apartment somewhere deep in the borough of Brooklyn) wealthy is working as a security guard is never explained — except, of course, it's important to the story that he exist as an escape pod for the troubled Wally.
This is the sort of casual narcissism that infects the movie — the world seems like a contrivance for Wallis and for Wally — making it difficult to sympathize with either.
The acting is far better than the movie deserves. Miss Riseborough plays Wallis as an extroverted vamp, with a deliciously crisp upper-class American accent. James D'Arcy oozes superciliousness as Edward. What the movie misses is what unites the two, other than their shared sense of persecution.
While Madonna has a narrative point in trying to conceal the real woman behind the Wallis mask, her intent is revealed far too late to salvage the film. What's left is a disconnected series of set pieces that have all the aesthetic appeal of two hours of decently produced perfume commercials.
CREDITS: Directed by Madonna, written by Madonna and Alek Keshishian
RATING: Rated R for flashes of nudity and fleeting but troubling scenes of domestic violence
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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