Directed by: Madonna.
Written by: Madonna & Alek Keshishian.
Starring: Abbie Cornish (Wally Winthrop), Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson), James D'Arcy (Edward), Oscar Isaac (Evgeni), Richard Coyle (William Winthrop), David Harbour (Ernest), James Fox (King George V), Judy Parfitt (Queen Mary), Haluk Bilginer (Al Fayed), Geoffrey Palmer (Stanley Baldwin), Natalie Dormer (Elizabeth), Laurence Fox (Bertie), Douglas Reith (Lord Brownlow), Katie McGrath (Lady Thelma), Christina Chong (Tenten).
I can say a lot of bad things about Madonna’s W.E. – that it is overlong, over directed, over designed – both in determines of its art direction and costume design – over scored, that the acting either seems rather flat or completely over the top, that it is a whitewash of history. And yet the one thing I cannot say about W.E. is that it was boring. It held my interest throughout despite the fact that so little of the films actually works. I’m not sure why it held my attention, and yet it did.
The film takes place in two time periods – in 1930s England, where a twice divorced American named Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) falls in love with the Crown Prince of England Edward (James D’Arcy), so much so that he will abdicate the throne so he can marry her – and 1998 New York, where another woman named Wallis (Abbie Cornish) has married a rich, famous doctor named William (Richard Coyle), but falls in love with a refuge Russian intellectual currently working as a Security Guard at Sotheby’s – who are auctioning off much of the original Wallis and Edward’s estate – named Evengi (Oscar Issac). Both love stories are supposed to show strong women who bucked the societal pressures to be with the person they love. Both women give up everything they know for love.
As I mentioned off the top of the review, W.E. has many problems – and they track back to Madonna as writer and director. The screenplay is a little bit of a mess – the modern day story is shallow and unconvincing, and Abbie Cornish as Wally, is too much of a blank slate – it’s hard to feel that much sympathy for a woman who shows little to no emotion, and when she does it feels forced and insincere. The story of past doesn’t really work either – Madonna goes to great pains to try and convince you that Wallis and Edward were not Nazi sympathizers as many believe, but she may have been better to leave it alone. Not only that but Risen borough doesn’t really seem to be playing Wallis Simpson at all – but rather, she seems to be playing Madonna herself. The result is an odd mixture of past and present that doesn’t really work.
As for Madonna’s direction, it really is all over the map. Madonna tries hard to make the film look artistic – strange camera angles, different film stocks, strange close-ups, a strange dance sequence Wallis does set to the Sex Pistols (but not to God Saves the Queen, which would have made much more sense), but all these tricks undercut the movie – it makes it seem like a director lacking in confidence trying to cover up the holes in the movie with self-conscious “artistry”. The score by Abel Korzeniowski is ever present and distracting. The Oscar nominated costume design is quite good – but it’s also too much – you find yourself watching the clothes, and not the people in them.
This is Madonna’s second film as a director – following 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, which remains unseen by me. I think she needs to settle down behind the camera and realize that sometimes less is more. Every frame of W.E. seems painstakingly crafted, but they don’t really fit together. And yet, the movie did hold my attention from beginning to end. Maybe it’s simply because in so many ways W.E. is a train wreck of a movie, and it’s hard to look away. But I do feel that if Madonna simply settled down a little bit, she may actually make a better movie next time.