Considering the rough reception that greeted Madonna’s second outing as a film director at its opening in Venice, and the critical mauling the film has subsequently had on its release, it seems pointless to heap any further criticism on W.E., her own unique perspective on the American divorcee who caused such a scandal in the 1930s by marrying the King of England, Edward VIII, forcing him to abdicate and in the process becoming, as she rather apocryphally announces in the film, “the most despised woman in the world”. There would certainly be no point in going to see the film on the basis of its critical hammering, so – in my case at least – I thought that it had to be worth looking to see whether there are any positive aspects that can be found in Madonna’s movie, and there are indeed some worthy features worth mentioning. Inevitably, any praise must be faint or of the back-handed compliment variety, but in the case of this particular film, that’s about as much as you can really expect.
Let’s get straight to the good points first. Despite what you might have heard elsewhere, Madonna is actually not a bad director (see what I mean about faint praise?). If the overall purpose and content of W.E. is somewhat questionable, principally on account of an appallingly weak script (for which Madonna must take a large part of the blame, co-writing with Alek Keshishian), the film is nonetheless so well structured, the scenes so well blocked and filmed, that it makes surprisingly light work of those formidable two hours of the film’s length. Not only does Madonna prove to be capable as a director in terms of the pacing and building of scenes, she also manages to coax strong performances out of the cast in some of the roles, and capable ones where the actors are faced with rather less than well-defined characters and saddled with dreadful dialogue.
I think that’s about the most positive thing I can say about Madonna’s treatment of the life of Wallis Simpson, which leads one to suspect that, with a decent script and a film that has something meaningful to say, Madonna could be capable of much more as a filmmaker. That however would have to be a bit of a leap of faith, since there is little evidence in W.E. that the director has any ability to delve beneath the superficial surface into the inner lives of characters. That’s a particularly serious problem here, since the entire purpose of the film is to “set the record straight” with regards to Wallis Simpson, and tell the story from her perspective, showing that she had more to lose than gain through her relationship with Edward. If the film is to be judged as a success or failure, it has to be by how well it manages to meet this aim, and unfortunately, despite the technical and professional qualities of the film, it completely fails in this respect.
Part of the problem is to do with the decision to have a modern-day story that in some way works in parallel to the historical story. That in itself is not necessarily a bad idea if it helps a modern viewer relate to these private historical figures and it is able to suggest some deeper psychological insight that could not otherwise be revealed. Unfortunately, the story of Wall-E, sorry, Wally (what a terrible choice of name), has no compelling qualities or depth whatsoever. A young woman, recently married to an eminent doctor, Wally (Abbie Cornish) has deferred to her husband (Richard Coyle) and given up her career, but still has a lifelong fascination (as apparently has her mother and grandmother) with the life of Wallis Simpson. Lost in Translation-style, or in a Desperately Seeking Wallis way, the newly-married Wally seeks to find some sense of purpose and validation for her life in another person, and wanders daily around the Wallis and Edward Collection about to be sold at Sotheby’s (in 1998), dreamily drifting back through the objects to the history of “that woman”, helpfully explained through the simplistic fairytale narration of some documentaries that she also dutifully watches.
It’s not just that Wally’s story is banal in the extreme or even contrived, as much as it ultimately fails to serve the purpose for which it has been introduced. Presumably, the story of her escaping from a marriage to a brutal husband is meant to fill-in gaps in the story of Wallis Simpson that sit in the realm of rumour, supposition or are not spoken about in polite society, and thereby evoke some sympathy for her position, but Wally’s story is at best unconvincing and at worst manipulative in the extreme. If you are going to depict scenes of brutality against women on the screen, I think it is surely a duty of the filmmaker to at least provide some form of context. Not that wife-beating is acceptable for any reason, but there should at least be some realistic look at the psychology and the nature of the relationship in question. Did Wally know nothing about her husband before she married him? It’s as if she has married a complete stranger, who has no sooner gotten married (“a very lucky woman”, “quite a catch”, according to her friends), than he turns into a monster who stays out late, drinks heavily, refuses to have sex with her and has changed his mind about them having babies. To then add scenes of brutality against women to such weak characterisation, merely as a button-pushing effect to win audience sympathy, is utterly deplorable.
Using it in such a way also undermines and overshadows (if both things are possible at the same time) the main relationship of the film between Wallis and Edward. There’s actually a potentially interesting story here, and it’s beautifully filmed by Hagen Bogdanski (The Lives of Others), with a fine sense of period detail and good performances from Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy that do hold considerable intrigue. Unfortunately Madonna never seems to get beneath the surface to what makes them tick, and worse, she misses the opportunity when it arises, and undermines the nuances of the performances by a snatch of improbable dialogue or a glaringly inappropriate choice of soundtrack music. Their story leaps from first meeting – an effective introduction through a dance at Windsor Castle – to Edward turning up regularly for tea, and then, without so much as a kiss on the screen (I may have missed it) they suddenly seem to be a couple, tripping around the South of France. The sense of reserve and distance employed by the director towards royalty is much too respectful, and the workings of the relationship are certainly not illuminated in any way by the story of Wally in modern-day Manhattan.
Lacking any kind of depth or willingness to explore or even allude to some of the more awkward questions and friendships of Wallis and Edward, flitting over them with documentary clips with childish narrative, Madonna’s take on Wallis Simpson is consequently, but not surprisingly, somewhat superficial. The director knows how to capture the glamour and trappings of the celebrity life-style with a keen eye for fashion and jewellery, whether it’s in the present or in the 1930s, and she has something to say about the difficulty of maintaining one’s dignity when one’s name is constantly in the press and subject to gossip and jealousy, particularly the more malicious sniping that is directed against women. She also shows that it is certainly difficult for a woman in those circumstances to maintain her own career and personality, and that it’s not always easy for the woman either when married to a famous man. Ultimately however, this very personal perspective in W.E. probably ends up saying more about Madonna than it does about Wallis Simpson.