Jul 11, 2012|
(UK) History/Romance. Directed by Madonna. Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle. Category IIB. 119 minutes. Opens Jul 12.
A divorced and ambitious American woman marries a powerful Englishman and ascends into British high society—who’d have thought Wallis Simpson would be the inspiration for Madonna’s second foray behind the camera? Centering on the empire-rattling romance between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, “W.E.” has all the visual panache of a period drama and all the dramatic development of a perfume commercial. As the dazzling costumes and exquisite set design fail to salvage a film ridden by a banal screenplay and several poor performances, the Material Girl proves—once again, after her awful 2008 feature debut “Filth and Wisdom”—that she’s not writer-director material.
Had the pop star and her co-writer Alek Keshishian (director of “Madonna: Truth or Dare”) settled on making a straightforward biopic, “W.E.” probably would’ve been much more involving. But no, instead we’re looking at two parallel stories that are decades apart but linked by their namesake heroines, a la “Julie & Julia.” In 1930s London, Wallis (Andrea Riseborough)—formerly married to an American naval officer and now to Ernest Simpson (David Harbour)—is starting an affair with England’s most eligible bachelor, Prince Edward (James D’Arcy), who later famously abdicates the throne to be with her. This royal melodrama is the obsession of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a contemporary Manhattanite stuck in a torturous marriage with wealthy psychiatrist William (Richard Coyle), who finds refuge at Sotheby’s—her old workplace—as the auction house holds a sale of Wallis and Edward’s valuable possessions.
At the auction preview, Wally goes through all the exhibits while daydreaming of the past, which constantly materializes as flashbacks of Wallis’s life. The two women’s connection is meant to be metaphorical, but is presented as repellently literal in juxtaposed scenes of them taking baths, waiting for the men to come home and taking a kick from their abusive (ex-)husbands. And if you attempt to think too hard about how their fates echo each other, you’ll be disappointed to realize that their similarities end on the surface. Unlike the strong and driven Wallis, Wally is a mopey, soggy bore that sucks the life out of a fine actress like Cornish. If it’s any consolation, she’s gorgeously shot and spends half of her screen time in her underwear.
The much more interesting storyline belongs to Wallis, who’s played by Riseborough in a star-making turn. The 30-year-old British actress completely morphs into the role of the fortysomething socialite who causes a constitutional crisis and becomes a national enemy when King Edward VIII—helplessly besotted by her though the film never quite explains why—decides to marry her at all costs. Then, intimacy becomes isolation, the duke and duchess become “Nazi sympathizers” (curiously dismissed as a “rumor” in the film) and “the world’s most celebrated parasites,” and their marriage turns into a prison for Wallis. But when a man gives up the British Empire for a woman, she has no choice but to live out “the romance of the century.” The film’s best moments are when it turns the focus on Wallis’s point of view and her sacrifices.
The good parts don’t last long, though. As we cut back to the present, Wally meets her own “E” in the sexy Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), who’s a Russian security guard but really an intellectual-cum-pianist with a massive loft and a grand piano (WTF?!). Compared to D’Arcy’s bland Edward, whose only accomplishment in the movie is wandering around Europe in dashing suits and showering Wallis in Cartier jewelry, Isaac’s Evgeni is a charming presence. It’s a shame that he’s given a laughably preposterous plotline.
On the redeeming side, the film is elegantly framed by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski (“The Lives of Others”) with Arianne Phillips’s immaculate costumes and an ear-pleasing soundtrack by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski (“A Single Man”). The beautiful production design may, in fact, distract you from the painfully disjointed editing and directing. Madonna seems unwilling to let go of her music background, shoving retro Super 8 footage into the picture here and there, giving the film a clichéd music video feel. I still can’t decide whether her choice of accompanying a royal party scene with the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” is ingenious or downright bizarre, but the song’s title does sum up the film.