W.E. arrives amid catcalls and derision, because it’s directed and co-written by Madonna, last seen being carried across a stage by a bevy of half-dressed Roman gladiators. But blending the love story of American divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, who abdicated his throne to marry her, with that of an unhappily married contemporary Manhattan wife is not a bad idea at all. Only in the execution does Madonna stumble: Despite the undeniable romance of the historical material, she has made a movie more concerned with how things look than how they feel. Which should not surprise anyone.
That’s not to say W.E. doesn’t have a few good moments, most of them provided by Andrea Riseborough (Made in Dagenham, Happy-Go-Lucky) as a shrewd, resilient Wallis who knows perfectly well what she’s doing when she sets out to seduce a king. Only later does she find herself unprepared for the consequences. The story of Wallis and Edward has captivated audiences for decades (and is all the better known for the success of The King’s Speech; its stuttering hero was the king’s younger brother). The present-day story to which Madonna contrasts it, however, is somewhat less enthralling. Wallis’ modern counterpart is Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish of Limitless), stuck in a lousy marriage to a philandering, brutish but successful doctor who demands Wally give up her job even though he doesn’t want kids.
Wally seems to have no friends or family to commiserate with or to give her the number of a good divorce lawyer. So she whiles away her time daydreaming at a soon-to-be auctioned Sotheby’s collection on Wallis and Edward, marveling over the detritus of their lives together — tablecloths, plates, cups, jewelry, photographs, cigarette cases — and wondering what it would be like to be part of an epic romance. She is also interested, quite rightly, in what Wallis had to give up to be with Edward, not just the other way around.
If you’re still getting a bad feeling about this, congratulate yourself; your senses are in tune with the rhythm of the misstep. In an all-too-literal move, Wallis starts showing up to talk things over with Wally and inadvertently prods her in the direction of a thoughtful Sotheby’s security guard (Oscar Isaac). The film flips back and forth between the women’s lives — there seems to be an ongoing newsreel playing in Wally’s head as a counterpoint to the overlavish score — but their connection feels tenuous and contrived, and the fact that Wallis actually appears to Wally far too artificial.
Much attention is paid to objects and lavish rooms and close-ups of cigarette smoke swirling, not enough to real emotion. We get it: We are living in the material world, and these are material girls, but sometimes more simple human emotion is required. As a director, Madonna favors a camera that’s often so busy you want to tell it to sit down and relax for a moment, and yet other scenes are maddening in their slowness. The film’s tempo is off, partly because Cornish doesn’t get much to do besides walk around looking tragic. The script, generous with Wallis, skimps on Wally. Beyond the fact she’s unhappy, there’s not enough to her to hold our interest.
Riseborough, though, makes the most of her moments. In one terrific and subtle scene, a slip of the tongue reveals the true nature of the relationship between Wallis and Edward to a table full of swells, and their shock and silence is deafening. Later, Wallis, the king and their friends swill champagne laced with Benzedrine and dance wildly to the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant, a clever little anachronism straight out of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. You have to give Madonna credit for not wanting to do another dreary biopic, but there are too few of such irreverent touches in the tightly wound W.E. I never thought I’d say this, but at least as far as directing goes, Madonna needs to loosen up a little.
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac.
Screenwriters: Madonna, Alex Keshishian.
Producers: Kris Thykier, Colin Vaines.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 118 minutes. Some domestic violence, nudity, language. Opens Friday March 2 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.