Before it preemed in Venice, advance word on “W.E.,” Madonna’s sophomore feature about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, was that it was better than her debut, “Filth and Wisdom.” Indeed it is, though that’s not saying much: Burdened with risible dialogue and weak performances, pic doesn’t have much going for it apart from lavish production design and terrific, well-researched costumes — and it’s in focus, which is more than can be said for the script. Nevertheless, interest in the subject and her Madgesty alone will ensure substantial royalties internationally.
Instead of a straight-up Simpson biopic, Madonna and co-screenwriter Alek Keshishian (helmer of “Madonna: Truth or Dare”) have ambitiously opted for something trickier by weaving the story of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward VIII, aka David (James D’Arcy), and how he gave up the throne for her, with a contempo tale about Gotham-based femme Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish, appearing mostly catatonic), who becomes obsessed with Wallis’ story when Sotheby’s holds a sale of the duke and duchess of Windsor’s possessions.
Married to rich psychiatrist William (Richard Coyle), Wally has given up her job at Sotheby’s (where, according to some explicatory dialogue, she was the company’s “No. 1 research assistant”) to get pregnant via in vitro fertilization, but it hasn’t worked out — probably just as well, since her husband is a physically abusive jerk. Wally generates sparks with Sotheby’s security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), who’s not just a smoldering bit of beefcake but an “intellectual” and a classical pianist, who lives in a super-spacious loft with his own grand piano. Sotheby’s must pay good money.
If “W.E.” were prose, it would be italicized and in bold caps, so banally does it juxtapose events in Wally’s and Wallis’ lives: We see Wallis having a baby beaten out of her by her first husband in the 1920s, just as Wally consults a doctor about IVF; Wallis meets Edward, then prince of Wales and heir to the throne in the 1930s, amid several would-be meet-cutes between Wally and Evgeni; and so on. At times, the two women walk into each other’s stories and interact, a not-so-subtle sign that this is all some kind of amorphous fantasy, although whether it’s Wally’s fantasy or Madonna and Keshishian’s is never quite clear.
The Wallis-Edward part of the film actually works passably well, largely due to the fact that their story is intrinsically more interesting, even if it’s been covered elsewhere. Riseborough does an adequate impression of Wallis with a tremendous assist from Arianne Phillips’ costumes, which seem to replicate the famous outfits Mrs. Simpson wore, down to the very buttons and individual pleats.
Unfortunately, the film feels much more interested in getting these details right than in making up its mind about where it stands on Wallis and to a lesser extent Edward, who has less of a presence here than he did as minor character in “The King’s Speech.” Aware that most auds today think of Edward as a Nazi sympathizer, the script acknowledges his reputation but airily dismisses it as mere “rumors,” and conveniently ignores matters of historical record, such as the fact that the duke and duchess were honored guests of Hitler at his Berchtesgaden retreat as late as 1937.
It could be argued that it’s Madonna’s right to be selective about history in order to craft a narrative sympathetic to Wallis’ side of the story. But the film seems to want to have its glossy, pink-iced croquembouche (glimpsed onscreen at a party) and eat it, touting Wallis and David as one of the great love stories, but also debunking that very myth by raising the notion that marriage didn’t really make Wallis very happy. Oh well, at least this uber-material girl got lots pretty jewelry for her trouble, all of it shown in drooling closeups; Cartier is prominently thanked in the end credits, along with John Galliano and, particularly bizarrely, Leni Riefenstahl, which suggests Madonna has, if nothing else, reasons to be grateful to other people accused of harboring Nazi sympathies.
Craft contributions are of a higher order here than they were in “Filth and Wisdom,” but the clunky montage sequences and blend of 8mm and 16mm film stocks plays like something out of a how-to-make-a-musicvideo handbook from 1991. Even more surprising, given that Madonna’s forte is meant to be music, is the decision to score a speed-fueled party scene to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” probably a tip of the hat to Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” but a derivative one.