Madonna, of all people, should know you can’t manage to be daring and demure in the same movie. Daring and often dull, yes. The Queen of Self Reinvention, an exhibitionist seemingly since birth, she seems to have lost her nerve while making “W.E.”, her film directing debut. She eschews the sordid and reaches for sad and sweet, here. And those sentiments remain just beyond her reach.
Madonna’s film about Britain’s King Edward VIII and American socialite Wallis Simpson takes up the cause of a “misunderstood” and misrepresented Mrs. Simpson, suggesting the fellow who gave up his crown for “the woman I love” wasn’t the one who made the greatest sacrifice. It accepts as fact that legend that surrounds “the greatest love story of the 20th century” and dismisses the ugly rumors spread about the couple by British monarchists and their pals in the scandal-mongering press.
But the movie only rarely comes close to hinting at what the ambitious blonde sees as her connection to the very public, scandalized divorce’ which so roiled Britain in the years between the two world wars.
“W.E.” comes dangerously close to be being a boring movie about boring rich people being bored by each other’s boring company.
“What’s it going to take to get you you two down to the Hamptons this summer?”
But there’s a clever narrative twist, a parallel story about an obsessed young New Yorker (Abbie Cornish of “Sucker Punch”) named for Wallis who sees her unhappy, childless and rich marriage as the same sort of trap Mrs. Simpson (Andrea Riseborough of “Made in Dagenham”) dealt with through her three marriages.
There’s the abuse, the longing for a baby, the gilded prison that an unhappy life with the wrong rich man represents.
Wally haunts an exhibit in the halls of her former employer, Sotheby’s. The personal belongings of the Duke and Duchess of York are to be auctioned off, and Wally loses herself in the jewels, gloves, cigarette cases and andirons of Edward and Mrs. Simpson. In her unhappiest moments, suspecting her cheating husband (Richard Coyle) or preparing to have a baby, with or without his help, she imagines conversations with “W.” about “E.”
Of course, the parallel story has to have its own E., and that is Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a Sotheby’s guard who takes an interest in Wally.
The film skips back to Wallis’ miserable, abusive first marriage in Shanghai, her dull second husband and the ways she ardently charmed her way into Edward’s social circle long before, the movie suggests, she ever set her cap for him.
She is sexy, a little forward, and a little flirtatious with Edward (James D.Arcy). We see no cunning in the manner she ingratiates herself with him, easing another American socialite out of the picture. Her advice to Wally is classic man-trap stuff.
“Men are such visual creatures, darling.”
There’s a lot of real and re-created newsreel footage (including some glaring historical errors), the odd moment of juxtaposing Wally’s imagined modern music onto a scene in which Wallis dances the Charleston. The sexual attraction, between Wallis and Edward and Wally and Evgeni, is so discrete that you’d never guess the director of this movie spent much of her career pushing the world’s sexual buttons.
When in doubt, Madonna focuses in on her gorgeous and talented leading ladies, long, sedate shots of them walking, extreme closeups as they daydream about their fates and wish they could find a way to change them.
“W.E.” is more interesting than entertaining. But the ever-savvy Madonna was onto something, here. The story of this romance, seen not through the lens of the woman who came to be known as “The Queen Mum,” a woman who despised Wallis Simpson and what Edward’s abdication meant to her husband (remember “The King’s Speech”), but through Mrs. Simpson’s own eyes, is a fresh take on this “romance of the century.” It’s a pity her storytelling skills aren’t up to her ambition, and that the 50something Madonna shies away from a subject the way the 30something Madonna never would have.
MPAA Rating:R for some domestic violence, nudity and language
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James Fox
Credits: Directed by Madonna, written by Madonna and Alek Keshishian, a Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:59