ANDREA RISBOROUGH AND JAMES D'ARCY IN W.E.Madonna's sophomore directorial effort
During this winter new year Hollywood dump season besides the offbeat actioners (Contraband, The Grey, Haywire
, and so on), we get oddities like Madonna's W.E.
You can be the judge whether Madonna was the ideal person to make a movie about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor or Robin Leach of the kitsch TV show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," or somebody else. Anyway, despite several mildly appealing performances W.E.
leaves little impression of anything but the clothes and houses and jewels. Lifestyles of the rich and famous -- and better still, the notorious and royal. But despite careful costume research, these celluloid Windsors are neither as elegant nor as ugly as the real thing.
The failure of the movie as a movie can be traced to the usual suspects -- dubious construction and weak dialogue. The screenplay is a sort of duplex, perhaps thus designed to conceal what was felt to be thin or "dated" material. This is to say that Madonna and her script collaborator Alek Keshishian thought the Windsors made a good subject, but not one they could make into a whole feature film. So what we get instead is two stories, one of the Thirties and one of the Nineties, intercut with each other for no ultimately very good reason other than filling up a feature film running time. Along with the tale of Wallis and Edward (whom we learn everyone called either Your Royal Majesty or David) is the story of a young woman in New York in 1998 called Wally (Abbie Cornish). These two stories have nothing in common other than the fact that people drink and smoke too much in both of them, and Wally was named after Wallis, the Duchess, and fetishizes the Duke and Duchess and the trappings of their lives. Both ladies also leave one man for another, but that's hardly anything unusual.
So along with following the flirtation of Mrs. Simpson and the man who abdicated the British throne for her, we get Wally at Sotheby's oggling Windsor objets
and politely pursued by a young Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac). Wally is a former researcher at the auction house now reduced to wandering it uselessly. Madonna and Keshishian hit us over the head with how much she deserves our sympathy. She wants to have a baby and can't but her husband, a rich doctor called William Winthrop (Richard Coyle), couldn't care less. He won't even have sex with her, or can't. He is a drunken adulterer who beats her. Could any character be more odious, or dispensable? Under the circumstances Wally's obsession with the Duke and Duchess seems a forgivable escape. (But couldn't she have tried art classes, or yoga, or helping the homeless?)
Wally takes refuge with Evgeni, the security guard, who besides being handsome (he looks like Jake Gyllenhaal, only more serious), plays great classical piano and lives in an impossibly cool loft, with a concert Steinway, though he says he's a "refugee." And he's a poet and intellectual too. In no time (literally, because we are not aware of the passage of time) Evgeni makes Wally pregnant. The conclusion is obvious. Though she's squandered eleven thousand of her nasty husband's dollars on a pair of Wallis Warfield's gloves at the auction, she gives them back to the Duchess, whom she meets on a park bench, and says a formal farewell. She doesn't need her Windsor fantasy life any more.
While it lasts the Sotheby's fantasy competes successfully with the Windsor reenactments. Abbie Cornish, though her performance has been called "mostly catatonic," is sympathetic, and she goes through a pleasing (and simplistic) transformation. I liked Oscar Isaac, who actually is Latino with a touch of Israeli, and a Julliard graduate. But Evgeni is a paper hero as William Winthrop is a paper villain. Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy, as Mrs. Simpson and David, AKA Edward VIII, AKA the Duke of Windsor, are quite charming, but they are mainly clothes horses, modeling cigarette cases, cravats (though whether the Windsor Knot has yet been invented is left unclear), diamonds, and Rolls Royces. The Rolls they flee England in after Edward's abdication is particularly luscious. And of course while it's all very well to admire the Windsor objects at Sotheby's where the collection of Mohammed Al-Fayed, the Egyptian entrepreneur who bought Harrod's, is about to be auctioned off, it's quite another thing to see them modeled by facsimiles of the original owners in appropriate settings -- settings properly identified by titles giving dates and as well as places.
This is an idea that may have looked better on paper. The two stories are at war with one another. Some people will go to this movie because Madonna made it. Others will go to see the scrupulously accurate Warfield Simplson/Windsor outfits. It may take on high camp status for its superficial romanticizing of the Windsor story. While Edward's qualifications as a King are not seriously evaluated, it seems here that he was a good chap, and that Nazi label is rejected. He felt for the out of work Welsh miners, and said so. As for Mrs. Simpson, she hated to leave her American husband, who was a good chap, if a bit dull. Far from being a golddigger, letters Wally peruses at Al-Fayed's place in France show that marrying Edward was just a burden she took on to humor him. One good and amusing scene shows Wallis doing the twist for the Duke, in bed with respiratory disease, in the early Seventies. The moment is absurd, brave, and sad and more real and specific than anything else.
We get to see the inimitable James Fox briefly as the aging King George V. Fox is always posh, but perhaps this is his first time as a king; his son Laurence appropriately gets to play Edward's younger brother Bertie.
As has been said, this is better than Madonna's forgotten 2008 first directorial effort, Filth and Wisdom
, but that isn't saying much: it's still not out of the Metacritic red zone. More people will see this one, judging by me. W.E.
debuted at Venice, and went into limited release in US theaters February 3, 2012.