A lot has been said about Madonna and her new film — about how bad and inept it is, as if it’s somehow worse than 99 per cent of the other movies released on a weekly basis. Let’s give her a break. W. E. is flawed, overlong and confused in its storytelling. But then, so was Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which has seen nothing but raves since it, too, debuted at Venice last year. Where Arnold received the benefit of the doubt, Madonna took a beating. But in both cases there was a director with a story and a vision — and only one of them was taken seriously.
There are three levels on which to approach W. E., and the first involves the performances, by far the film’s best aspect. Andrea Riseborough is terrific as the pushy Simpson, as is James D’Arcy as the simple king who so soppily doffs his crown to her. While Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) mopes through the 1998 auction, flashbacks of Wallis and the soon-to-be King Edward VIII are well served by Madonna’s cast, who give W. E.’s world a plausible humanity. These bright young things are rarefied, but the actors don’t play it that way, which gives the first hour an unexpected energy.
The second level involves the direction. The nearest comparison to this film would be fashion designer Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which also featured billowing curtains and gorgeous homes as a backdrop to a story of compromised desires. But where Ford’s film kept things simple, Madonna goes all-out to complicate things . The subplot involving Cornish isn’t just clinically sparse, it’s superfluous and boring. On top of that, the film’s eclectic visual grammar never settles into something consistent.
The third level, though, involves the intent. It’s easy to dismiss Madonna as a tourist in the film world. But though it often fails, most glaringly in historical rigour (complicity between the couple and Hitler’s Germany is left unexplored), W. E. does have interesting things to say. Unusually for a fashion icon, it says something unfashionable, which is that the brash Simpson, far from being the villain of a dark day in British history, was the victim, trapped by the love of a needy husband. In the short term, this will see W. E. dismissed as a vanity project but, in the long term, history may well find it to be a fascinating comment on 20th century celebrity from the ultimate insider.
An uneven study of a notorious love story, raised by some superb performances and nuances, but brought down by awkward direction.