W.E.: Madonna views love from a royal remove

Not Surprising, Bad reviews of Madonna’s movie she has directed.



Madonna’s first major film as a director, W.E., features Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy).

Madonna’s W.E. is a glorious mess of a disappointing costume drama that has all the directing restraint of a kid with a new box of paints and not much more focus.

Her first try at directing a substantial feature film is not terrible; it’s just not terribly good. Those fans who sniff she is getting lukewarm reaction for W.E. because of who she is have it wrong — she’s getting more attention than this quite-average picture deserves.

Madonna seems determined, however, to make movies, even after a less-than-stellar acting career and a poor first directing effort with 2008’s Filth and Wisdom. “Let me try that!” she seems to be exclaiming, with every odd camera angle or strange sped-up bit of business that makes the picture often take on the feel of a music video.

It’s not surprising that her co-writer on the often-naïve script — which is only occasionally elevated from its clunky, high-school drama-class dialogue with some witty lines — is Alek Keshishian, the director of the Madonna concert pic Truth or Dare.

It’s hard to know what Madonna is trying to do with W.E., an unfocused and often-confusing drama that hopscotches between the lives of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) — the British king who gave his throne up for love — and a permanently melancholy 1999 newlywed New Yorker named Wally (for the Duchess) who is obsessed with the late Mrs. Simpson and having a baby, in that order.

Wally (Abbie Cornish, who sleepwalks through the role) has a fascination with Wallis that verges on the nutty. She spends her days haunting the show room at auction house Sotheby’s, her former employer, which is filled with Wallis and Edward ephemera destined for auction.

Madonna is purposeful about rehabilitating the reputation of the notorious Wallis, who was shunned by the British royal family and a great deal of the world as an already-married, social-climbing hussy who set her cap for a future king. Suggestions she and the boyishly immature Edward were Nazi sympathizers is waved away with a quick flip of Wally’s hand.

Riseborough is the saving grace of W.E., playing the alabaster-skinned American Wallis to brittle perfection. She’s not given a great deal to work with and we’re led to believe that Wallis was a reluctant partner for Edward, who never wanted him to give up his title and, in marrying him, gave up a great deal herself. Not a throne, mind you, but she did get mercilessly hounded by the paparazzi.

As Wallis and Wally’s stories intertwine, the two women also “visit” each other across time, a device that works well in the first case but starts to get tiresome. “Darling, they can’t hurt you unless you let them,” ghostly Wallis tells a weeping Wally.

Meanwhile, back in time, Wallis and her party guests get hopped up on goofballs supplied by Edward and she launches into a sexy frug with a Josephine Baker look-alike while the Sex Pistols wail “Pretty Vacant.” Presumably added as an edgy aside, it’s jarringly odd — as is a later dance scene that is even more unsettling in its creepiness.

Edward and all the men in W.E., save one helpful Russian, are one-dimensional characters. Many of the males are violent and shockingly cold and uncaring. King George VI (Laurence Fox), who was such a noble character played by Colin Firth in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, comes across as a simpering wimp with all the backbone of a boiled prawn.

Arianne Phillips’ costumes are divine and Martin Childs’ production design is lovely to beholdas we’re immersed in the rare air of the royal set. However, beyond the good looks of W.E., there’s little to keep attention from wandering.

Madonna may be making a statement about the price of fame with W.E., but celebrity has exacted a price from her that limits her ability to be a better filmmaker. Living all her adult life in the sheltered arena of stardom has kept her apart from the often-mundane daily world and its ordinary struggles, the place that inspires the kind of intimate storytelling that makes for great movies.