Reminding us that they don’t make royal scandals like they used to, BBC America premieres the soapy but satisfying “Wallis & Edward,” earnestly chronicling the oft-told tale of how King Edward VIII renounced the British throne in 1936 to be with a twice-divorced American woman. Joely Richardson puts her best Yank accent (honed on “Nip/Tuck”) to good use, and Stephen Campbell Moore delivers a compelling performance as a man so smitten by love as to abandon his birthright. Just thank God that CNN, Fox News and “Inside Edition” weren’t around when it happened.
Wasting little time, director David Moore and writer Sarah Williams begin with Edward (Stephen Campbell Moore) being reintroduced to Wallis Simpson (Richardson) and her husband Ernest (David Westhead) at a posh event. The prince is clearly struck by the thunderbolt, and just as Wallis revels in the attention so does Ernest, who gushes about the royal infatuation that has transformed his wife into a “star” and opened doors to high society.
Slowly, however, the relationship grows, with Wallis spending more time on the continent and the furtive glances gradually morphing into stolen kisses and gropes. And while Edward is well aware that his duties call for him to run a gauntlet of “every blue-blooded virgin in Europe,” he becomes so enamored with Wallis as to eventually threaten suicide at the thought of losing her.
Not surprisingly, none of this sits particularly well with the royal family or government counselors, who fear Edward’s behavior will turn them into “an international bloody laughingstock,” as one advisor tartly puts it. Yet when Wallis and Ernest finally divorce, the fear that Edward will seek to marry this American commoner builds toward a showdown, with even Wallis urging him to accept reality and let her go.
Although debatably billed as being from Wallis’ point of view, the key performance here comes from Stephen Campbell Moore, who simultaneously captures Edward’s vulnerability as well as the sense of entitlement that emboldens him to challenge convention with what amounts to a “What can they do, fire me?” attitude. Richardson is also fine as a down-to-earth gal who can’t help but be a little overwhelmed hanging out with someone who, on a whim, can whisk everyone off to Budapest.
Overall, “Wallis & Edward” proves stately, handsome and occasionally a little ponderous, with lots of parliamentary tut-tut-ing in its second half, when Winston Churchill (David Calder) proves one of Edward’s few allies as hostility toward Wallis and their relationship grows. Even with its dry gaps, in style and tone the production taps into that elegant “Masterpiece Theater” vein, which even “Masterpiece Theater” doesn’t always do that well.
So jolly good, and all that.