That Madonna would feel an affinity with Mrs. Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), eventual Duchess of Windsor, another woman who was the object of controversy and the fodder of tabloids is understandable. Yet what she has done with the story of a self-made woman who so entranced Englands King Edward VIII (James DArcy) that he abdicated the throne for her in 1936, is inexcusable. And oddly cold. There is little to enjoy here and nothing to recommend. It doesnt even have the grace to be monumentally, laughably bad, though the newspaper reviewer at the press screening found a scene with a woman being kicked viciously in the stomach by her husband giggle-worthy. No one else, however, did.
It uses, incomprehensibly, the idiom of Wallis namesake, Wally (Abbie Cornish) an unhappily woman in 1998 New York, reliving the romance of the century via an auction of that couples belongings. Shifting back and forth with the most hackneyed of visual devices, the story of the two women play out in tandem and with increasingly preposterous moments. Wally is dour, obsessive, and so at odds with her psychiatrist husband that the spark that brought them together is AWOL. Wallis obsession with social climbing back in 1930s London is virtually erased in favor of focusing on what an innocent she was when swept off her feet by Edward, Prince of Wales, David to his intimates. The which she is shortly to become at the expense of her calculated friendship with Davids current mistress.
Madonna, who directed from a script she co-wrote, has channeled the sensibilities of her not unimpressive videos into a her work here. The result is like an overlong, overproduced commercial for a trendy perfume that threatens at any moment to reveal itself as a posh porno. There is genuine surprise that Wally and the Russian security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), who attaches himself to her dont immediately retreat to the nearest broom closet to consummate their inevitable passion to the throbbing of insistent bass lines. There are the tropes and clichés of romance and heartbreak enacted by carefully posed performers in achingly exquisite clothing, but Madonnad reveals no basic understanding of how to capture the melodramatic emotional life beneath the façade she has so lovingly constructed of flashy camera moves, haute couture, ostentatious jewels, and grooming that is several levels beyond soignee. It is as though someone deaf since birth has attempted to compose a symphony using only random vibrations as a guide. There are discernable rhythms, but nothing resembling a melody. Even a throbbing and insistent bass line.
What is most surprising, though, is the way Madonna, a woman who constantly reinvents herself with a calculation that is superb, who focuses her camera on the trappings of the luxe life with a fierce determination, at one point spews such vitriol on men who see only the externals. She wants us to focus on the these icons as human beings, but fails follow through with anything to back it up. Wallis is mild as milk in her designer gowns worn, she claims, not from vanity but only to make her husband look good. David is a larger version of the lapdogs the couple so cherished. Evgeny is the convenient shoulder on which Wally can cry when her marriage has finally fizzled because hubby cant perform with a baby-crazy wife. Or it might be the tears of a woman who has savagely stabbed herself one to many times with syringes full of fertility drugs, as dwelt upon with dogged curiosity by Madonnas camera.
At one point a narrator solemnly intones that George III of England is dead. And so he was and is. Unfortunately, the monarch in question, the one whose funeral cortege is being shows, was George the FIFTH. Its just sloppy, as is the interchangeable use of Majesty and Highness when addressing the royals. It serves W.E. badly, and doesnt help its mission to recast Mrs. Simpson as the ultimate victim while performing a hatchet job on the late Queen Mum (Helena Bonham-Carter in THE KINGS SPEECH for those keeping track of cinematic approaches to the woman). The other women fare no better in a film made by a woman who is strong and independent. Victimization is the norm, with Wallis and Wally each passively brutalized in different ways by the men in their lives.
W.E. is a glossy mess with no discernable point of view; a gluttonous feast of self-pity by women with a total lack of self-awareness. Wallis and Wally blather on to each other and to the people around them with vacuous dialogue made worse by each trying to outdo the other in impersonating Madonna herself.