It’s like Madonna is setting the world up for a great big punch line with W.E., a film that depicts the life of Wallis Simpson, formerly the most scandalous woman in the world (later replaced by Madonna), as a great romance for the ages. Wallis Simpson may not be a name most Americans can conjure off the top of their heads, but her extramarital affair with King Edward VIII, combined with her two divorces (a much bigger no-no in the 1930s), caused the well-liked royal to abdicate the throne in 1936 (an event dramatized less sympathetically in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech). Her life has been marred by accusations of Nazi sympathy and, more recently, hypotheses that she was a hermaphrodite. Nazi Sympathizer + Hermaphrodite + Nearly Toppling a Political Regime = Loving Biopic, courtesy of Madonna.
So it’s a little surprising that W.E. isn’t a disaster of epic proportions. Madonna’s second film displays some decent cinematic chops thanks to lyrical pacing and some fine performances, but the decision to parallel Simpson’s life with that a contemporary woman named after Simpson, played by Abbie Cornish, makes the film seem like a waste of time. Cornish’s character is obsessed with Simpson, played by a superlative Andrea Riseborough (Never Let Me Go), but for no greater reason than because her parents were. The parallels Madonna and her co-writer Alek Keshishian (who also directed Madonna: Truth or Dare) draw between the modern day protagonist and Wallis Simpson’s earth-shattering love affair are thin at best, with Cornish’s character mired in a loveless, increasingly abusive relationship that more befits a Lifetime Original Movie than a side-by-side comparison with the other half of W.E.
The point Madonna seems to be driving at is that the lives of celebrities, even the ones with illicit reputations, have the capacity to inspire their fans to their own self-actualization. It’s a blunt, arguably vain concept for an iconoclast like Madonna to make, and better dramatized on the Madonna-centric episode of “Glee.” Or the Britney Spears episode for that matter. Cornish’s protagonist, Wally Winthrop, has little to project onto the life and times of Wallis Simpson beyond a fantasy interpretation of love proven by great sacrifice, and the desire for her husband to spend less time at work has little in common with the life of a royal who, if the events of W.E. are any indication, spent more time partying than taking his job seriously in the first place. At one point, future King Edward VIII and Simpson spike the drinks at a fancy party with benzadrine, and rock out to the anachronistic sound of The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” a song about superficiality, which seems like a mixed-message for a film espousing the theory that the couple weren’t as shallow and self-obsessed as is commonly believed.
The concept of W.E. seems to indicate that these flashbacks are at best a subjective interpretation of the events of Wallis Simpson’s life, told from the perspective of an admirer and apologist. The conclusion, which finds Cornish reading a collection of Simpson’s private letters and gaining a greater insight into the figure’s own perspective on the famous events, could have freed Madonna to revel in the kind of exciting celebrity burlesque she provides in the Sex Pistols sequence, but instead most of the film seems to portray Simpsons’ state of mind in a fairly straightforward fashion, even if the events themselves have a one-sided slant that portrays her as a victim. (The accusations of Nazi sympathy are acknowledged but dismissed out of hand, and the theory regarding Simpsons’ sexual identity is never addressed.) So the culmination of the entire film feels completely unnecessary, declaring out loud the thoughts of a complex individual whose inner world was already perfectly clear thanks to the insight and subtleties of Andrea Riseborough, making the present day half of the film seems more pointless than ever.
Half a capable historical biopic and half a pointless exercise in housewife exploitation, W.E. amounts to the sum of its parts. Mildly interesting, capably filmed, well-acted but so unbalanced that it’s impossible to recommend to anyone not already fascinated with the British royal family, or at least jonesing for a companion piece to The King’s Speech. The DVD from Anchor Bay seems to have trouble with its black levels, possibly thanks to the creative decisions behind the camera, but overall is a decent presentation with only a self-congratulatory EPK that offers some insight into the production but none whatsoever into the real history behind the film’s story, an oversight to say the least. It’s tempting to say that W.E. reveals as much if not more about Madonna’s own ego than the real life of its protagonist, since the entire film feels like a justification for socially vilified, independent and sexually progressive female celebrities, but it just seems hypocritical to blame her for expressing herself.
[Editor's Note: The above review has been updated, as it inaccurately called W.E. Madonna's directorial debut. In fact, it is Madonna' second film behind the camera, after 2008's Filth and Wisdom. Our apologies for the error. Thanks go to reader Matthew Smith for the correction.]