Synopsis: The year is 1998, and Manhattan is abuzz with anticipation about the upcoming auction of the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But the auction is far more than a diversion for Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a transplanted Southerner trapped in an unhappy and abusive marriage. Transfixed by the exquisite artifacts of the Windsors’ lives, Wally becomes obsessed with the love story of Wallis Simspon (Andrea Riseborough), the chic, charismatic American who captured the heart of King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy). As she learns more about the sacrifices Wallis made in choosing to be with Edward, Wally finds the courage to follow her own heart and create her own happiness.
Release Date: February 3, 2012 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Romance
Like all good showbiz folk, Madonna wants to be taken seriously as a director. Everyone’s favorite material girl/Super Bowl halftime performer is at the helm of W.E., a two-for-one romantic drama that shows the world that she is better off being in front of the camera.
W.E. is the story of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish from Sucker Punch and Limitless), a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who is obsessed with the historical story of King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy from An American Haunting), the British monarch who abdicated his throne in order to be with the woman he loved, a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson (Brighton Rock‘s Andrea Riseborough). Having been named after Wallis, Wally wants to know as much as she can about the couple and becomes immersed in their history, learning about Wallis’ abusive first husband and the passive second one that she left for Edward. While at a Sotheby’s auction of some of the pair’s belongings, she becomes friendly with one of the security guards named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac from Drive) who, at first, just lets her stay late and look at the artifacts. Soon, Wally discovers that Evgeni is a multi-talented intellectual, and begins to have feelings for him. She sees the parallels between Wallis’ life and her own, and wonders if she has the same resolve as her idol to get out of her neglectful relationship and into a healthy one.
W.E. is part romantic drama and part biopic. The 1930’s segments are better, but, as hard as the film tries, neither story really makes sense in the context of the other. The film ends up walking the line between mainstream and artsy, but not going to either side very well. The storyline is interesting and the movie is never boring, but it ends up being a random mess of ingredients instead of a full meal. For instance, at one point, Edward and Wallis are at a party and Edward asks her to dance for everybody. She obliges, and starts to do some period thirties style dancing to…a Sex Pistols song. It’s obvious that that’s not the song to which the character is really dancing, but it’s what the audience hears, and it’s confusing at best, downright irritating at worst.
W.E. is not Madonna’s directorial debut; she made the lightweight rock & roll film Filth and Wisdom in 2008. W.E. is a much more ambitious project, and Madonna’s lack of experience shows. The plot shifts confusingly between the 1930’s and the late 1990’s to tell both stories, and the effect is more disorienting than seamless. To add to the ruckus, every so often Wally and Wallis will speak to each other, conversing through the decades, completely killing the idea that Wally is simply an observer to Wallis’ life. The interplay between the two flows together about as well as the two love stories do (which is to say, not at all), and rather than reaffirm the influence that Wallis’ life and experiences have on Wally, it just makes Wally look schizophrenic and insane. Maybe if Madonna had played that angle up a little more and made W.E. more of a thriller the film would be more effective. It definitely would be a lot more interesting, and would probably give Black Swan a run for its money.
Madonna co-wrote the screenplay for W.E. with her old Truth or Dare collaborator Alek Keshishian (Love and Other Disasters). The script is where most of the problems in the film can be found. The plot jumps back and forth in time too much to be coherent, so the film never really finds its right track. Even the dialogue is repetitive and drab, so much so that not even the remarkable performances by Riseborough and Cornish can’t save it. Put simply: the script just doesn’t work.
For being such a strong woman herself, Madonna really lets her female characters down in W.E. Both Wally and Wallis are intelligent and driven women, but both come across as needing a man to complete their lives. Both of them have the courage and sense to realize that they need to get out of their respective situations, but neither has the strength to do it on their own; Wally needs Evgeni, and Wallis needs Edward. Even when the women are standing up for themselves, they end up getting the hell beat out of them for their trouble. In one scene, after Wally’s husband has just physically abused her, Evgeni finds her curled up in the dark, seemingly waiting for him to come and take her away. The women don’t grow into themselves; they just become dependent on a nicer pair of guys.
The director of photography on W.E. is Hagen Bogdanski, who brought The Beaver to the screen last year. Bogdanski appears to mainly use handheld cameras for most of the film, with motion in just about every shot. His technique gives the movie an unsettling, tense feel to it, almost like a horror movie (another reason that Madonna should have played up the thriller aspect). The camera often follows characters, looking over their shoulders as they walk and will focus in on anything of interest that needs to be seen, all in a shaky (but not sickness-inducing) hand that adds atmosphere. Combined with sometimes non-continuous jump cuts provided by editor Danny Tull (who has worked with Madonna on a couple of her documentaries), the tension and whole overall look of the film are consistent, even though it takes place over a sixty year span. Bogdanski’s cinematography is easily the saving grace in an otherwise unremarkable picture.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Madonna
- Producer(s): Alek KeshishianMadonna
- Screenwriter(s): Abbie Cornish (Wally Winthrop)Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson)James D’Arcy (Edward)
- Story: Oscar Isaac (Evgeni)
- Cast: Richard Coyle (William Winthrop)David Harbour (Ernest) Danny TullHagen BogdanskiMartin Childs
- Cinematographer: Abel Korzeniowski
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score:
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: UK