starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, Oscar Isaac, James D’Arcy, Richard Coyle, James Fox, Judy Parfitt
written by: Madonna and Alek Keshishian
directed by: Madonna
MPAA: Rated R for some domestic violence, nudity and language
It is impossible to know for certain if viewers would have responded differently to W.E. without the knowledge that it was directed and co-written by Madonna. Her involvement is both a blessing and a curse: it guarantees that the film will be talked about endlessly, while simultaneously ensuring that much of that talk will be negative. Even riding the wave of goodwill from her hugely celebrated triumph at the Super Bowl halftime show, Madonna is no closer to being taken seriously in the world of film. But despite being the latest punchline to jokes that have been writing themselves for years, W.E. should at the very least challenge the notion that Madonna cannot direct. Writing, on the other hand, she should probably entrust to someone else.
Like a broodingly melodramatic Julie & Julia crossed with a stylishly shallow The Hours, W.E. (which is based on an original script Madonna wrote with her Truth or Dare director, Alek Keshishian) weaves together two stories about women named Wallis. The first and original, Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), was an American socialite and legendary fashion icon whose fabulosity was so irresistible that King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) abdicated his throne in 1937 just to marry her. The second (fictional) Wallis, who goes by Wally (Abbie Cornish), is a modern-day young woman trapped in a loveless and increasingly abusive marriage to a cruel British doctor (Richard Coyle).
Wally, who was named after Ms. Simpson, seems to spend much of her time wandering Manhattan while drenched in ennui, but she perks up a bit when she learns that Sotheby’s is having a momentous auction of Wallis and Edward’s estate. With her TV permanently tuned to what appears to be an all-Wallis and Edward spinoff of The History Channel, Wally begins haunting the auction house and losing herself in fantasies about Wallis’ life, escaping from her troubled marriage by imagining “what it feels like to be loved that much.” She also begins a pensive flirtation with Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), dismissively described by one character as “a Russian intellectual slumming as a security guard — they’re a dime a dozen.”
This story is interwoven with a retelling of Wallis’ own tale, specifically the circumstances that led to her romance with Edward, who became her third and final husband. We open with a brief and almost laughably over-dramatized depiction of her abusive first marriage, followed by her climb up the rungs of British society while married to her affable second husband, Ernest Simpson (David Harbour). Madonna focuses on the idea that, rather than continuing the traditional narrative of what Edward gave up to be with Wallis, why not turn it around? What about all that Wallis gave up? Unfortunately this turns out to be a rather undercooked idea, and Wallis, in all of her wealth and privilege and abundance of love, doesn’t quite come off like a sympathetically tragic character; she is the kind of woman for whom only Madonna could feel pity. (Although this is by no means the fault of the chameleonic Riseborough, who is utterly mesmerizing in the role.)
To Madonna’s credit as a director, the film does look and sound quite incredible. Arianne Phillips (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) has justifiably received an Oscar nomination for her striking costume design; it is evocatively photographed by Hagen Bogdanksi (The Young Victoria) and lushly scored by Abel Korzeniowski (A Single Man). The art direction is stunning, and the makeup is on point (Riseborough’s resemblance to the real Simpson is simply uncanny). But it isn’t surprising that Madonna’s strengths as a director reside more in the music video/fashion advertorial world than in feature-length narrative films. Perhaps if she’d had a stronger script to work from, W.E. would have been more successful; but tragically, she has written the script herself (with Keshishian, whose only other writing credit is the little-seen Brittany Murphy vehicle Love and Other Disasters), and this is very much to the film’s detriment.
The dialogue is overwhelmingly stilted and tone-deaf to a truly distracting degree, and the film has the egregious bad taste to repeatedly feature Wally and Wallis having fantasy-sequence interactions with one another. This is especially true of the appallingly bad final scene, which embodies everything misguided and wrong about the film. There are also two jarring domestic violence sequences that the film simply has not earned the gravity to depict. While Riseborough soars as Simpson, Cornish is sedate and somnambulant as Wally. The male actors are largely inconsequential, although Isaac (Drive) is suitably smoldering. And the bit players (characters with names like Tenten and Arabella) are generally terrible.
W.E. is very much in keeping with the vast majority of Madonna’s creative output: it’s a visually ravishing and provocatively sensuous shell with a handful of half-baked ideas rattling around inside. Like every other artistic endeavor Madonna has embarked upon over her 30 years in the spotlight, its message ultimately seems to boil down to little more than “Look at me!”
W.E. opens in San Francisco today.