A marvelous 10-car pileup of ostentatious art direction and dated fashion shows in search of reason for being, the sophomore effort from writer-director-hyphenate Madonna is a fascinatingly bad collision of good intentions and decent craftsmanship. By virtue of her near-indestructible pop icon status, everything Madge does automatically becomes a semiotics exercise, and so we’re left to ponder W.E. —a heartfelt, deeply personal and wildly self-indulgent vision issued from within an ivory tower. It’s like a costume drama hijacked by a Freudian confessional.
Abby Cornish, Sucker Punch’s comely co-star with broad shoulders and sonnet-worthy thick thighs here stars as Wally, occupying the picture’s main timeline as a bored 1990’s Manhattan trophy wife constantly ignored by her boozy doctor husband (Richard Coyle) and singularly obsessed with the historical travails of her namesake, Wallis Simpson.
When a collection of the long-dead Simpson’s belongings goes on sale at Sotheby’s (where our heroine used to work, but pointedly was instructed to quit by her vaguely pre-historic hubby), we kick into some serious double-timeline storytelling, envisioning the abdication of King Edward VIII as a succession of glamorous parties with a miserable ending that I presume is supposed to mirror our central character’s divorce. Copious flashbacks ensue, yet Madonna can never quite get to the bottom of this crazy, stupid love between a couple of Nazi sympathizers that knocked Great Britain’s power structure for a loop.
Played by Andrea Riseborough with a screwball American accent seemingly borrowed from Jennifer Jason Leigh back when she was mimicking Rosalind Russell in the Coen Brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy , Simpson is a plain, shockingly dull American girl thrust into the limelight by her nonsensical love affair. British costume drama perennial James D’Arcy plays Edward as a weak, ginned-up salamander with a startling shortage of star quality, and the two linger for epic scenes of exile, knocking back cocktails and wondering if the movie is ever going to get around to a point.
Like Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia for the jet-set after-party crowd, this picture traverses competing timelines lingering for long, admittedly gorgeous shots of beautiful people doing beautiful things. The highlight arrives early, as an anachronistic deployment of the Sex Pistols “Pretty Vacant” underscores a Royal debauch. Madonna is wandering into Sofia Coppola’s snarky pop soundtrack territory, here.
Far, far too much screen-time is lavished upon the young Cornish’s halting affair with a savvy security guard, played by Drive ’s resident kinda-cuckold, Oscar Issac. He’s got an easygoing magnetism that holds the camera well, comfortable within his station amid all this class, and unlike everybody else in the movie he actually works for a living.
As with most Madonna projects, it’s fairly impossible not to read the Material Girl’s tumultuous personal history into the proceedings. The strain of wannabe Anglophilia is fitting for a Detroit gal who invented her own British accent once she turned 40, and the attraction to Issac’s plain-spoken, blue-collar dude can easily be explained away by a woman who married bare-knuckle brawlers like Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie.
Shooting for the most part through hallways and doorways, W.E. has a lush visual kick that was missing from Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth And Wisdom. Thanks to cinematographer Hagen Bandanski, the movie is awash in opulence and constricted by frames within the frame. But what’s disappointing about W.E. is just how little time she spends on the travails of life beneath a tabloid microscope. Every last one of Wallis’ and Edward’s banal comings and goings are chronicled by the media—a situation our filmmaker is presumably intimately familiar with, but never quite pays off.
She sadly remains shackled to a romance-novel notion of Wallis and Edward’s affair, a dull hypothesis set on its ear when the ghost of Simpson herself slaps Cornish upside the head and utters out loud: “This is not a romance novel.”
So what is it, then? Dreadfully overlong at almost two hours, W.E. spends a ridiculous amount of time lingering on minutae, with Madonna’s token cross accessories occupying vast portions of filmic space. The central idea of a leader who surrendered his kingdom for the love of a disreputable woman remains abstract at best, and surprisingly (of all people) Madonna can’t muster the erotic heat that presumably drove Edward’s and Wallis’ relationship off the rails. It’s a surprisingly sexless movie.
Cornish remains obsessed with Simpson and the king for strictly juvenile reasons. She’s unloved and lonely in a dead marriage, seeking validation from ghosts and envious of their doomed circumstances. There’s probably a master’s thesis to be written here about celebrity and projection—the dangers of living a vicarious life through superstar worship.
You’d think Madonna would probably know a thing or two about this, but as a filmmaker she keeps getting distracted by the champagne bottles and costume design.
Starring: Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy and Andrea Riseborough