W.E. Review: Half-decent
Derisively panned at the Venice Film Festival, Madonna’s latest directorial effort isn’t actually that bad. The story of Wallis Simpson, a twice-married American “commoner” and her romance with the King of England, Edward VIII, is well-documented and makes for great period drama. But Madonna’s decision to include a parallel modern day storyline is not only superfluous but also bafflingly misjudged.
In 1998, Wally (Abbie Cornish) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a successful doctor. She spends her days wandering around the Wallis and Edward’s exhibit at Sotherby’s prior to the auction of their personal artefacts. As she does so, she forms an emotional bond with Wallis and we flash back to the 1920s where the real Mrs Simpson is struggling with her emerging romance with the future King of England.
What’s interesting about W.E. is its focus. Instead of centring on the national ramifications of Wallis Simpson’s relationship with the future King, Madonna casts Wallis as a victim – falling in love but unable to truly express it; trapped by the attentions of a needy husband and risking the hatred of a nation and even the entire world.
In these scenes, W.E. is a triumph. Andrea Riseborough is a wonderful Wallis and conveys a righteous scorn at formality but also a vulnerable interior beneath her porcelain mask. James D’Arcy also makes a great Edward VIII – handsome, chain-smoking and seemingly carefree. There’s a feeling that Wallis is doing the worrying for both of them. There’s great chemistry between the two, a real sense of joy, which lifts a production which could easily have become a stiff and stuffy affair.
The highlight is a wonderfully constructed dinner scene in which their secret relationship is accidentally revealed: a wonderful build-up with a devastating payoff. It’s just a shame that this scene wasn’t the focus of the story as the modern subplot is flabby, unnecessary and dull and prevents the film from ever getting into its stride. The parallels are already quite clear; do we really need spoon-fed scenes in which Wally and Wallis meet to swap advice?
Despite the odd moment of brilliance, there are scenes which are so misjudged that they threaten to undermine a solid production. A scene in which Wallis, the King and friends get down to the strains of The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant is unquestionably the film’s nadir, but Wally’s present day meeting with Mohammad Al Fayed is also cringe-worthy.
W.E. is not the absolute disaster that was expected – there’s half a good period drama in here. It’s just a shame that it’s tangled amongst the thorny ill-conceived briars of a thuddingly dull and pointless modern parallel.