“Please, I beg of you, carry me out of this awful movie.”
Madonna is a phenomenal musician. Much like Michael Jackson, her influence on the industry, on the style, on the artists that are currently playing alongside her and writhing on the worldwide stage making asses of themselves — all bow before the pop genius that is Madonna. And much like Michael Jackson, the fame has caused Madonna to go crazy with her own power. Michael Jackson tried to become a ten year old white girl; Madonna convinced herself she was British. But for some reason we let this slide — if we were going to allow Gwen Stefani to think she’s turning Japanese to think she’s turning Japanese she really thinks so — then who were to question the Material Girl? Because Madonna, even at half strength weakass club Madonna, is still terrific. Because Madonna is a phenomenal musician. What she is not is a filmmaker.
W. E. would have been an unholy mess no matter who was at the helm. But it was not helped in the least by being in the hands of Madonna, who has no concept of story or cinematography. She can’t hold a single sustained shot for longer than 2 minutes, cutting arbitrarily and frenetically between different angles and body parts, mostly of staring down at feet or arms or hands rather than faces. It’s the style of an action movie or music video, not the allegedly quote greatest fairy tale romance of all time endquote endlife. The result is a stuttering narrative that feels like listening to a crackhead teach British History. This may have worked had the story even been remotely palatable or coherent. It’s a dual love story: the love story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII from Wallis’s perspective interspersed with a dull as dishwater modern day romance between a modern day socialite also named Wallis as she tries to shrug off her loveless marriage. It’s a drooling simpleton of a framework, crushed down beneath a somber and dreadful atmosphere and combined like a halfwit bashing two vegetables together over a pot and calling the fragmented mush soup.
Remember The King’s Speech? The one where Colin Firth got an Oscar for repeatedly saying “fuck” like an overeducated Kennedy? Okay. Remember Guy Pearce’s part? This is what the movie is mostly about. Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) was a divorcee who married a sweet businessman and lived in Britain. She became enamored with The Duke of Windsor, Edward David William Jeffery Devadonder Abercrombie Fitch His Majesty Bubblebuns (James D’Arcy), he who would be next king. From brief and embarrassing scenes, we find out that Wallis’s first marriage basically involved a mad soldier who whooped her ass and frowned like the only guy in a Lifetime Movie. Her second marriage was happy to a lovely man named Ernest Simpson (David Harbour). But she decides she’d rather do the do with the Duke. Of course, once he becomes king, it’s not acceptable that he should be dropping the scepter in a married woman. And so, in a move that made lots of spinsters swoon, Edward gave up the monarchy to be with the woman he loved. And she told her husband, it’s been real, but honestly, Disney convinced me little girls need to hump royalty. And so they die alone, banished, and living in a foreign country, but you know in love. A true love that probably had nothing to do with Edward’s admiration of Hitler.
Anyway, we get this story through hallucinatory flashbacks of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a former Sotheby’s scholar who lives a life of luxury with her cheating asshole of a husband, William Winthrop (Richard Coyle). William is a doctor who comes home to drink scotch and look like an elderly member of Weezer, and then he stays out and probably does it with everyone else. So Wally, named for Wallis Simpson by a mother and grandmother obsessed with the story, becomes also obsessed with The Duke and Dutchess of Windsor. Like Wallis, she’s in a loveless marriage. Like Wallis, she can’t conceive. Like Wallis, she is a rich woman who has nothing better to do with her time than go stare at the auction block of artifacts from The Duke and Dutchess of Windsor, on sale by Mohammed al-Fayed in 1998, when this part takes place. It is here she draws the eye of the meaty yet intellectual Russian security guard, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac). Get it? Wallis/Edward - Wally/Evgeni? Madonna, you mensch, you’ve done it again!
For a romance, Madonna films sex scenes like fight sequences. People get hurled on the bed, they grunt and writhe, and then it’s over after two punches. When people are doing it, they yell at each other, or else they spend their time drinking, smoking, and dancing. And the dancing — save me, Tony Todd Jesus! There are several scenes of unforgivable awfulness involving dancing, including an older woman kind of doing The Twist. The modern portion of the film is unnecessary and weak. If Madonna actually wanted to tell the story of Wallis Simpson from her perspective, she doesn’t need to couch that with an awful “Poor Widdle Rich Girl” narrative. It’s distracting and cliche, easily surpassed by the actual story of Wallis and Edward, which is also cliche but somewhat less so. Wally finds herself staring in to mirrors, and as her husband gets increasingly distant, only coming close to breath angry scotch on her before punching her with his words or fists, she begins to have conversations with a vision of Wallis Simpson. Yes, rich young girl speaks to dead people in her mind. Augh.
The acting’s pretty terrible, and unfortunately, fault falls to the women. Because the men are bad too, but they’re also bare sketches of character. Ernest is the nice guy who’s gonna get fucked over. Edward looks like an ad for the British remake of Mad Men, looking cool even when he’s being a chickenshit, but posing is for magazines, not films. Vogue. Evgeni. Oh. They try to give him character depth, but it’s difficult to stick traits to a slab of meet. He’s Prince Charming, here to rescue the damsel in distress. Nobody give a fuck what Prince Charming’s policies on taxation are or his backstory. Then, we’ve got the gals. Andrea Riseborough is probably the best part of the film, even if Madonna portrays Wallis Simpson as Dorothy Parker by way of Lydia Deetz. She drolly and dryly quips throughout the film, pale as a Ricci. It helps accentuate how terrible Abbie Cornish is. Awards talk? The only thing she deserves is the Odette Yustman Scholarship to the school of Katie Holmesing.
Now might not have been the right time to release a film where we are expected to feel sorry for extremely wealthy people who have nothing better to do than be really sad. And as for romance? The general message seems to be that Wallis Simpson’s perspective was everyone wanted the fairy tale, and they forgot to mention that happily ever after lasts into menopause. W.E. is simply dreadful. It’s like someone took a Bret Easton Ellis novel that was edited for the tween crowd and got it mixed up with that same kid’s “um” and “uh” filled report on Wallis Simpson. She brings all the same passion and vibrancy she brought to Swept Away, and most of the general story — socialite falls for servant. I’ll make you a deal, Madge. You don’t write or direct any more fucking movies, and I’ll never write a pop song? Capisce?