Wednesday, February 8, 2012


A Scandalous Love In '36, Paralleled By Tragedy
In '98

Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson and James D'Arcy as Prince Edward Of Wales in Madonna's "W./E.". 
The Weinstein Company


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, February 8
, 2012

There's an elegant tragedy that wafts throughout Madonna's second feature film directing effort "W./E.", which expands its limited release in the U.S. this Friday.  Madonna chronicles American socialite Wallis Simpson, arguably a Nazi sympathizer, for whom Prince Edward Of Wales abdicated the British throne as king in 1936, so smitten was he by her.  Married at the time, Edward's behavior caused a major scandal and rift in Britain's circles of power at 10 Downing Street and royalty at Buckingham Palace. 

"W./E.", or Wallis/Edward -- the initials are how the couple signed off in letters to each other -- focuses on five key years of their interactions (1931 through 1936), with an emphasis on the last year.  The ups and downs of their lives are paralleled by a second story, set in 1998, the year Sotheby's in New York City auctioned off hundreds of artifacts, letters, jewelry and other personal effects of Wallis and Edward.  The contemporary story features Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a woman tangled in a volatile marriage to a boozy, physically and psychologically abusive adulterer (Richard Coyle).  Wally develops a fascination with Wallis Simpson and, inspired by her, searches for true love and happiness in her own life.

Madonna more than adequately weaves a documentary-like look at the true events of Wallis and Edward's affairs, presenting them as fragments glimpsed in Wally's mind's eye.  The problem is, little substance exists on screen in Wallis and Edward's interactions, only artsy superficiality as an idea of passion and pageantry to Wally, whose own miserable circumstances are occasionally numbed by Sotheby's security guard, a Russian man named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac, "Drive".)  We don't get a chance to settle down with Wallis and Edward to get a stronger sense of who they were as people.  Clearly they weren't happy at times -- mainly with the outside world -- but what made them who they were?  Beyond the scandal how did their love and passion endure?  Before the audience is allowed more insight it is whisked off to 1998 where either a solemn or tearful Wally will be awaiting them, gazing at photos of a faded romance the audience hasn't had a chance to warm up to or learn about.

To atone for the deficiency in the substance of the relationships "W./E." force-feeds its audience with its connection of commonality in Wallis and Wally as sacrificing women seeking empowerment, to the point of overkill, making the film -- which feels like a three-hour ordeal -- a two-hour endurance test.  The director doesn't appear to trust her audience much or even her own film, often staging imaginary conversations between Wally and Wallis about strength, womanhood and perseverance.  Never one to leave her fans much to the imagination, Madonna never gives her film audience the opportunity to connect the dots between the two women. 

The episodes between Wallis and Wally are sincere but grow tiresome, and in a film that aims to be serious with its copious, if muddled actual newsreel footage of its events, the imagined talks as a cinematic device are pure gimmick -- odd, awkward moments undercutting any narrative flow "W./E." has, if at all.  (There is none: the film wanders.)  There's an obviousness about "W./E." that Madonna and her script never escapes: repeated writings of the initials on a mirror in lipstick; the major female and male characters in intimate relationships all having the letter 'w' or 'e' as the first letter of their first names; film characters and written letters frequently referring to the meaning of the initials; the similarity in the names Wallis and Wally; Wally dressing up as Wallis as if to reincarnate her in 1998.  (Wallis Simpson died in 1986.) 

On another point: the director's personal life has in some ways been as scandalous and outrageous as Ms. Simpson's albeit without the same implications and international ripples.  Wallis Simpson in Madonna's film however, is largely an apparition, both literally and figuratively: she's inconsequential and hollow, albeit a talisman for courage and determination for women in tough times.  Strangely, "W./E." squeezes profundity from the idea that Wallis' love for Edward meant she sacrificed her privacy and a career.  While that is on the surface true, and while women the world over do this for the men they love -- and that isn't a trivial point -- in "W./E." Wallis is giving up her privacy for a King who has abdicated his throne -- whatever privacy Wallis, or specifically the film, may believe remains in such an extraordinary situation must surely be slim to none.

Some of the film's fictional episodes are punctuated by needless melodrama and repetitive, oddly-placed metaphorical hammers.  The tone of "W./E.", which features good work from Australian actress Andrea Riseborough as Wallis, is scattershot and its vision unfocused, interrupted by flashbacks and forwards that disrupt a film that never truly establishes itself. 

It's a shame, because there are parts of "W./E." that offer promise.  Written by Madonna and her "Truth Of Dare" director Alek Keshishian, "W./E." is strongest when investigating Wallis, her confidence and audacity, her sense of isolation and the battle-tested resilience she has when facing scrutiny: "they can't hurt you if you don't let them", she advises in one scene.  Wallis however, is more a tragic hero in love and endurance than her would-be alter ego Wally is, which makes the parallel between them that the director emphasizes all the more inapt. 

"W./E." features wonderful costume design, a fine, if overused music score by Abel Korzeniowski and commendable ambition from Madonna, yet it's a film that doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to accomplish.  You sense that Madonna wants to show us everything: glamour, style, scandal -- and those she stages well -- but also wants to throw everything else at us -- documentary, fiction feature, advocacy piece.  In the process, nothing at all is gained. 

The biggest obstacle is the 1998 fiction story, mired in melancholy.  Stale and wooden, it subverts the very thing the film's advertising materials promise: a love that created scandal and upheaval.  Had Madonna stayed solely with the principal story of Wallis and Edward, developing it more while vacating the shallow, drawn-out 1998 story, "W./E.", a decent effort as it stands, would have made for a far better big screen experience.

With: James D'Arcy, David Harbour, Judy Parfitt, James Fox, Haluk Bilginer, Laurence Fox, Geoffrey Palmer, Natalie Dormer.

"W./E." is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some domestic violence, nudity and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 58 minutes. 

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