by Collin Insley 11:00pm PST, February 16, 2012
When her 2008 debut film, Filth and Wisdom first appeared on the critical radar, it was widely assumed that Madonna’s directorial career would be a short one; that she would perhaps (hopefully) feel as though having directed one feature film was enough of an accomplishment and that she would call it a day. With 2012’s W.E., I am sad to report that it appears as if Madonna is intent on adding to her oeuvre.
W.E. purports to tell the story of the fairy tale romance between twice-married American commoner Wallis Simpson and his royal highness King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne during World War II so as to be allowed to marry her (thus making way for King George and his king-sized stutter). Unfortunately, Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian see fit to force into what could be a wonderfully fascinating and straightforward historical drama, an unwieldy prism through which to experience a story that needs no such thing. The results are disastrous. That prism is a modern day Wally (Abbie Cornish), acting as a conduit for the audience as she strikes up her own forbidden (I guess) romance with Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a “Russian intellectual slumming as a security guard.”
Wally is in a dead end marriage, having given up her career working for Sotheby’s (it’s never made clear what exactly she does) to start a family with her husband William (Richard Coyle). However, he’s an abusive, seeming alcoholic, probably embroiled in an affair, and doesn’t seem much interested in kids. When the estate of Wallis and Edward (played in flashbacks by Andrea Riseborough, the only breath of life to be found anywhere, and James D’Arcy, respectively) comes up for auction, Wally spends most of her time getting lost in the exhibit, imagining what life might have been like for the original W. and E.
And so, as we oscillate back and forth from 1930s England to modern day New York, to and fro, Madonna attempts to create a connection between Wally and Wallis by using items in the exhibit as anchors from which to cut back and forth in time. Occasionally Wallis shows up in the flesh and has conversations with Wally. It’s paper-thin and patently ridiculous for reasons not the least of which being that whereas Wallis and Edward’s story is truly a fascinating one that, if given the opportunity to shine, would make for a great story, the trials and tribulations of Wally and Evgeni could not be less interesting. Who cares? I sure didn’t.
Oscar Isaac does the best he can with a thankless role, but Abbie Cornish is one of the big problems here. Boy is she beautiful, but man can she be wooden. She struggles to make her dialogue sound lived in, and her eyes often appear to be dead. It’s more than a bit of a problem for an inexperienced director like Madonna. (Writing the words, ‘director’ and ‘Madonna’ in such close proximity feels wrong in about six different ways).
If Madonna had chosen to focus her story solely on the romance between Wallis and Edward, there’s a good chance this would have been a great movie. At the very least, it would have been watchable. Instead, any kind of real examination of the incredibly complicated (both historically and personally) relationship between Edward and Wallis is nothing but surface deep. And to make matters worse, the one memorable scene in this entire film (a dance number set to a punk song) comes from so far out of left field that the effect is a sort of eyeball rolling alienation. It’s an awful thing to see a great movie buried so hopelessly and deeply in an awful one. Not helping matters much is the extremely cut-happy editing and the “Look ma, no hands!” style in which the film is shot. This is a movie that can at times be painful to watch because of how completely botched it is.
W.E. only runs 1 hour and 59 minutes, but it feels interminably long. Do yourself a favor and keep away from this stinker. Far, far away.