fri 21/06/2024

W E | reviews, news & interviews



More costume than drama from this limp period romance directed by Madonna

Wallis and Edward (Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy) at the peak of their right royal romance

“I’m not a beautiful woman,” Wallis Simpson once declared. “I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” Madonna’s second feature W.E. operates under a similar philosophy – with rather less success. Never knowingly under-dressed, under-designed or under-directed, the film contorts itself into ever more stylish poses in a desperate attempt to stun its audience into a couture-induced coma of submission.

The lumpy silhouette of cinematic ambition cuts persistently through however, exposing the steel Madonna’s revisionist fairytale is so keen to strip from her heroine. That good taste goes beyond Cartier and Chanel is something Simpson herself knew all too well; it would have been kind if someone had explained this to Madonna before she embarked on so gilded and public a parade of her confusion.

Topics from fashion to feminism are explored with all the understated elegance of an Essex girl at AscotUninterested in straight biography, W.E. reads the familiar story of the tragic romance between American divorcee Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII alongside a contemporary narrative. Wally Winthrop (a permanently tranquilised Abbie Cornish) is trapped in an abusive marriage to a wealthy New York psychiatrist, and seeks solace in her obsession with Wallis Simpson, whose possessions are shortly to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

While mooning catatonically around the exhibition Wally encounters Evgeni (Oscar Isaac, pictured right with Cornish), an Eastern European intellectual slumming it as a security guard (though judging by his World of Interiors New York loft apartment with its football field of stripped oak flooring, grand piano and collection of 18th-century landscapes, security is rather well-paid), and begins her own implausible love affair.

Unfortunately the script (a garish piece of prose organza co-written by Alek Keshishian and Madonna herself) gives almost more weight to this battery-farmed parallel romance than the more interesting earlier episode, unbalancing proceedings and making the film altogether too long. And while both writers should be complimented on their grasp of basic exposition, was it really necessary for them to show every mechanism, every seam, every joist in action?  

Direct, fantasy conversations between Wally and Wallis cover not only fashion but feminism (“Don’t you think women have more to offer?”) and do so with all the understated elegance of an Essex girl at Ascot, while the inconvenient question of Nazi sympathies is written off in an aside (“They might have been naïve, but it doesn’t make them Nazis”). But at the screening I attended it was left to a plot-significant encounter between Wally and Mohamed Al-Fayed (Haluk Bilginer), drawing bold-type parallels between the relationships of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed and Wallis and Edward, to provoke gasps.

It would be unfair however to bracket W.E with Filth and Wisdom – the glorious failure that was Madonna’s first feature. The film is adequately (if fussily) shot by Hagen Bogdanski (The Lives of Others, The Young Victoria), while Arianne Phillips’ costumes out-act both Cornish and Isaac, loaded with meticulous authority and atmospherics, and deserve any award going. The credit sequence is also beyond reproach.

With big names such as Edward Fox and Laurence Fox (neatly cast as royal father and son King George V and Bertie) and Geoffrey Palmer (Stanley Baldwin) reduced to cameos, all weight in the 1930s scenes is carried by Edward and Wallis. Andrea Riseborough’s Wallis (pictured above and right with James D'Arcy as Edward VIII), all tensely arched eyebrows and brittle wit, is impeccable and believable, and deserves far more support than she gets here. James D’Arcy as Edward shares Riseborough’s uncanny physical likeness to his character, which helps ground an efficient performance that never quite gets over the marked card dealt him by his gender and nationality in this film so determinedly about women and outsiders.

Too much research and not enough skill are a dangerous combination, with the deficit too easily supplemented by sincerity. This period piece is so keen to expose the ugly, contemporary truthfulness that lies beneath its petticoats that it writhes naked in blood on the bathroom floor (the opening sequence of violence-induced abortion is as brutal as it is crass, clearly designed to exploit the visual impact of red against the art deco monochromes), and flashes its emotional flesh at anyone who’ll look.

Wearying, uneven, unsatisfying – not even bad enough to be a good comedy – W.E. is all the more maddening for the value of its component parts. Imagine the film Riseborough, Bogdanski and Phillips could have created in other hands and you find yourself unsure whether to deplore Madonna’s self-deception as a director or admire her instincts as a producer. While you’re struggling to decide, you could do worse than contemplate the scene where Wallis gyrates provocatively to a soundtrack of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”; it’s a classic, just not one of the Merchant Ivory variety.

Watch the trailer for W.E.


Too much research and not enough skill are a dangerous combination, with the deficit supplemented by exhausting sincerity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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The more the critics bash this film, the more I want to see it again. Yes, I saw the movie in Los Angeles and if any critic pays attention to the movie and not who directed the film, the critics will see that there is a valid message in the film. By the way, the scene with “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols is one of my favorite moments in the film.

I attended the premiere for W.E in London a few months back and while I appreciate the well written article and agree with some points (maybe too much research and not enough substance) there are still some great moments in this film. I loved the Sex Pistols moment too, Madonna stamping her mark in an unconventional way but again, there's too much focus on her as a director here - there should be more surrounding the film itself. I'd love to see it again.

So, on the basis of this exquisitely written review and the comments thus far, we can glean the following: while the film is a dog's breakfast, people enjoy the music of the Sex Pistols. Not exactly a rebuttal, but I'll agree that 'Pretty Vacant''s a pretty sweet song.

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