Directed by Madonna
Madonna doesn't appear in W.E. but her artistic sensibilities are on display at every turn.
Wallis & Edward
There are two narrative tracks in W.E.
One follows the true-life scandalous romance between Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough, Made in Dagenham) and King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Together, they're the titular "W.E." and they were two of the biggest headline makers in the 1930s, with their love affair culminating in King Edward's abdication of the throne. This year's best picture winner, The King's Speech, picks up with the aftermath by focusing on the story of Edward's stuttering successor, King George VI.
The other track in W.E. is historical fiction about a young woman in 1998 New York City. Sotheby's is holding an auction of Wallis and Edward's belongings and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish, Sucker Punch) is captivated by the stories represented within the artifacts. The auction really did happen; it spanned an astounding 44,000 items and raked in $23.3 million, more than three times the $7 million that was anticipated. Wally, though, is a work of fiction and her life is used as a device to mirror that of Wallis and to carry her legacy forward.
Wallis was thrice married, with her first marriage being troubled and subject to a violently abusive husband. Wally's also an unhappily married woman whose husband turns explosive and leads Wally into the arms of another man. In her case, he's a Sotheby's security guard named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac, one of Cornish's co-stars in Sucker Punch).
Wallis & Madonna
W.E. is ambitious on many fronts. In particular, Hagen Bogdanski's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous to look at and Abel Korzeniowski's score is vibrant, eclectic, and aurally stimulating. Those two elements alone imbue W.E. with an intoxicating, heady buzz of artistry.
But the trouble with W.E. is in the storytelling.
In addition to the look and the sound, W.E. is full of ambitious ideas and it is clear Madonna knows the historical material inside and out. The problem is in getting the story from Madonna's mind to the screen and the gap isn't entirely bridged by co-writer Alek Keshishian, who collaborated with Madonna on the documentary Truth or Dare.
To the uninitiated – those who know nothing or very little about the significance of Wallis Simpson – it's like trying to navigate the tempestuous oceans of a creative visionary without a map or a compass.
Where is W.E. headed? What's the point? Those are questions that repeatedly arise while W.E. lumbers toward its conclusion.
Wallis & You
While introducing W.E. before the film's gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Madonna commented on her desire to make a movie about a strong woman. That's a perfectly sound ambition.
But the problem is the story presented here doesn't explain why Wallis was a strong woman. Sure, she escaped a rotten husband and went on to live out a fantasy life as a king maker (or king breaker, depending on the point of view). Without a doubt she held some kind of seductive spell over Edward, but that's the result of a collaborative chemistry and shouldn't be perceived as an intrinsic strength of Wallis the woman.
To the credit of Madonna and Keshishian, the stories of Wallis and Wally finally do dovetail, and they do so rather nicely. The patient viewer is rewarded with the kind of ending that should be expected from such a fanciful concoction, a flight of fancy that requires a leap of faith on the part of the viewer, but it's not a flabbergasting leap, simply a graceful one.
W.E. ends with a pregnancy. It can certainly be argued a woman's single greatest strength is her power to give life, and in that regard Madonna, at least at a very high level, accomplishes her thematic ambition.
Even with the narrative strain that overstretches Madonna's storytelling, W.E. is the kind of vision-fueled experience that sits well after viewing and provides food for thought to those willing to let it sink in. This is Madonna's sophomore directorial effort; it's an admirable accomplishment and certainly a movie of which she should be proud.
Given the movie's artistic success and solid performances, particularly by Riseborough and Cornish, W.E. sets the stage for Madonna becoming a cinematic creative force in years to come.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.