Imagine a Venn diagram consisting of three circles, in which one represents the 2010 Best Picture winner The King's Speech, another represents the box-office hit Julie & Julia, and the third represents the gloriously inept Mariah Carey vanity project Glitter. W.E., directed and co-written by Madonna, exists at the one little point where those circles briefly intersect.
The movie stars Abbie Cornish as Wally Winthrop, the young wife of a wealthy New York doctor, who has spent her life obsessed with the relationship between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée for whom Edward abdicated the throne so they could marry. Wally, who was named after Wallis, often escapes into reveries about the pair as her husband is both emotionally and physically abusive to her; he's demanded she quit working, resolutely opposes her desire for children, and stays away for days at a time without telling her where he is. To pass the time, Wally continually visits the auction house Sotheby's, where she used to work, in order to look over the numerous items of Edward's and Wallis' that are being sold off, and she becomes such a permanent fixture there that she triggers the interest of a Russian security guard who tries to win her heart. Intercut with this tale is the story of the tumultuous pairing of Edward (James D'Arcy) and Wallis (Andrea Riseborough), which nearly brought down the government of England just as it was on the verge of entering World War II.
Right from the start, the movie hits us with its overriding theme -- women in relationships inevitably suffer. Early on, we're treated to not only Wally's husband's emotional coldness, but we're also shown the end of Wallis Simpson's first marriage as her husband kicks her naked body and triggers a miscarriage. The screenplay proceeds to hammer home the point that women are forever miserable at the hands of men -- Cornish has tears in her eyes, or seems to be on the verge of it, in just about every scene she's in.
The period-drama sections of the film are much stronger, in large part because Riseborough gives Wallis Simpson a spark that none of the other characters possess; she's the only one who ever seems to smile. It's the part you can tell Madonna wanted to play.
As a director, the megastar certainly tries. Even though she's obviously comfortable filming people in the height of 1930s fashion, Madonna smartly attempts to undercut the staid elegance of the surroundings at one point by staging a Benzedrine-fueled royal party scored to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant," but it works better in theory than it does onscreen; she earns points for trying even if it's more or less a lift from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. The movie would have benefitted from a few more sequences like this one; not that she should have turned the whole picture into a "Vogue"-esque panorama, but it's about the only time the director lets loose and has any fun. A lack of humor turns out to be one of the film's major flaws.
In her decades in the public eye, Madonna has constructed a persona that has become, especially over the last 15 years, joyless. Her determined sense of spectacle is anchored to the concept that she is the center of attention. Her epic stage and video productions have never been about "look at this!," but rather, "look at me!," and her undiluted narcissism runs right through the heart of both of her main characters here, robbing them of any complexity.
While that doesn't make for a good movie, it's impossible to deny that W.E. is a personal statement for Madonna. Since she directed it by herself, and co-wrote it with longtime collaborator Alek Keshishian, it's fair to say that this is the purest cinematic vision we're likely to get from her. It feels like she's using this opportunity to work out for herself how she's had two very public, very acrimonious divorces in her life, and how she's trying to maintain a belief in non-fairy-tale love through all of it. She's an artist, but film just isn't her medium.
cast-crew for W.E. on AllMovie
- Director, Producer, Screenwriter
- Sound/Sound Designer, Supervising Sound Editor