Natalie Dormer portrays Elizabeth in "W.E.," a tale that winds… (Anthony Souza / The Weinstein…)
"W.E.," Madonna's second go at directing a feature film, leaves one wishing she'd find other creative outlets for those times when she's bored with the pop-star life. A new fashion line? Another documentary disassembling her latest truths and dares?
What we have instead is an overwrought historical drama built around the storied romance of Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American for whom King Edward VIII gave up the British throne in 1936 to marry. As the film explains, W.E. was one of their terms of endearment, which would work neatly on a metaphorical level, if only "W.E." had a metaphorical level.
Co-written with her "Truth or Dare" collaborator Alek Keshishian, the movie gives Madonna an expansive platform to ponder the notion of great romantic love -- its possibility as well as its price. The contrivance is to create parallel stories -- a fragment of Wallis' (Andrea Riseborough) journey, followed by a slice of Wally Winthrop's (Abbie Cornish) life, a modern Manhattanite whose rocky road to love constantly echoes her namesake's. It's a lot of back and forth and tediously literal at first -- Wallis takes a bath, Wally takes a bath; Wallis is kicked by her first husband, ditto Wally. Then it just gets crazy with Wallis periodically "materializing" for brief encounters with Wally.
Because this is primarily a woman's story -- the men either abusive monsters or royal twits -- Madonna has taken care with the aesthetics. As a result, "W.E." is incredibly beautiful to look at, the attention to detail in '30s London with its costume and set design exceptional, all lovingly shot by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski ("The Lives of Others").
It's the movie's plot that is the problem. Far too simplistic and borderline offensive, "W.E." essentially says all it takes for a woman to feel fulfilled is the love of a good man and a good martini close at hand. Not that the man and the martini aren't excellent complements to a life, but we've come a longer way than that, baby. Or so I thought.
There is a moment late in the film when Wally is yet again pressing Wallis about something -- by this time the line between fantasy and reality has been completely lost -- when an impatient Wallis snaps back, "Get a life." I wasn't sure whether to applaud or sigh.
The film begins with a brief glimpse of Wallis' past and Wally's present. But soon we're into the full swing of Wallis' flirtation with the playboy prince, while Wally is hoping a sexy teddy will warm up her icy husband long enough to make a baby. Seductions of various sorts drive virtually all of the action.
Wallis seems mostly adept at marrying up. Her first spouse was a bully, but Ernest Simpson is both doting and well-heeled, a prince, just not a Prince. When Wallis decides she'd rather go royal, she loses her privacy and her parties, and develops an irritating whine, which doesn't play well in a world facing Hitler's rising threat. Meanwhile, Wally is basically a bore.
Sotheby's auction of Wallis and Edward's personal effects in 1998 becomes the bridge between the two stories. Wally becomes obsessed with the collection, lingering so long that you may wonder why she's not arrested. Instead, one of the security guards, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), falls for her. When Wally's defiance and discontent finally do take shape, she decides she might be so bold as to bid on something. Shopping as liberation; an auction paddle lifted in protest, not exactly the stuff of feminist dreams.
Wallis' "thinking man's thinking woman" seems patterned after Katharine Hepburn's brand of sharpness and sass. Riseborough, a rising young British actress ("Happy-Go-Lucky," "Made in Dagenham"), does what she can, but too many of the lines are laughable. Cornish, so terrific as the object of Keats' poetic affection in 2009's "Bright Star," has an even rougher go with the limp rag of Wally. The men are not worth mentioning except for Evgeni, thanks to Isaac, the actor using haunted eyes and careful hesitations to deepen the enigma of his guard/renaissance man.