Right from its world premiere in September at the Venice Film Festival, the world's critics were gunning for Madonna's W.E., a uniquely different telling of the story of the famous affair of England's King Edward VIII and American socialite Wallis Simpson, the woman he loved and for whom he abdicated the throne. Opinions improved at the Toronto Film Festival, but following that screening Madonna went back into the editing room and tweaked. The result is an odd, very personal film that the pop star-turned-director has made with tender loving care, but the results of the final final film are mixed. Curiosity could drive some initial box office and upscale moviegoers might give it a look, but without big names in front of the camera propelling business, prospects for a long run in theaters are dim. Madonna' s name on the DVD box could help its post-theatrical life considerably.
Spurred on by own fish-out-of-water British residency with then-husband Guy Ritchie, co-writer and director Madonna clearly feels a kinship with the life and story of Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), who was vilified by the public when her torrid affair with the then-King of England (James D'Arcy) forced him to choose between her and the crown. In telling the story, though Madonna has chosen a slippery narrative device—instead of approaching Wallis head—on, she splits her plotline in two and creates a modern half that runs parallel with the very compelling tale of Wallis and Edward. So when a 1998 New York auction of their memorabilia goes on the block at Sotheby's auction house, we meet Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a southerner involved in an abusive and terribly unsatisfying marriage. She becomes obsessed with their royal romance and spends hours lingering over their artifacts to learn everything there was to know and discover about them. It is through this prism that the director explores the rollercoaster life of the famous pair as Madonna juxtaposes it with Wally's. It obvious where this is all going: Wally's world will find a new purpose through history. Unfortunately, the film makes several awkward transitions—just when you settle down with one storyline, you are thrust into another.
The Madonna faithful will still find much to admire, particularly with the visual style she employs. At times, W.E. almost seems like one of her videos: all style and no substance. The Oscar-nominated costumes of Arianne Phillips though are something to behold and provide lots of eye candy even when the director's compositions come off like some sort of style show. What saves the day are the performances. James D'Arcy as Edward is okay, but he can't make us forget Guy Pearce's saltier turn as the monarch in last year's far superior The King's Speech. Yet this Wallis is a far more sympathetic and fascinating creation than she was in last year's Oscar winner and Andrea Riseborough is convincing throughout, a lovely presence and an actress clearly going places. Cornish is also delectable and makes the most of an underwritten role. Both lift the material from its shallow state and makes think you are watching something far meatier and more intriguing instead of a tale for the ages compressed into something thoroughly forgettable.
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy, Abbie Cornish, Oscar Issac, Richard Coyle, James Fox, Judy Parfitt
Screenwriters: Madonna, Alek Keshishian
Producers: Kris Thykier, Colin Vaines
Rating: R for domestic violence, nudity and language
Running Time: 119 min.
Release Date: Feb 3, 2012