LITTLE ROCK Despite what you’ve probably heard, Madonna’s W.E. is not a completely horrible film. It’s enjoyable in parts, and there’s one sequence - an anachronistic and jarring one in which Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) dances with a Masai tribesman to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” - that I think indicates that Madge has real potential as a director.
I realize I may be alone on that one, and that a lot of other critics have called the same scene “jaw droppingly risible” or words to that effect, but I kind of liked it. At least it woke me up.
Otherwise the movie seems like some bizarre consumerist fantasy, an aspirational advertising campaign for some vague upscale product we can neither afford nor entirely apprehend. There are a lot of pretty people in this movie, doing things that only fashion models do - thinking long thoughts while gazing a thousand yards into the beautiful brave sadness of their tortured lives.
It’s ostensibly a bio-pic of Simpson - the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) threw over Great Britain - combined with a Harlequin Romance-level story of her namesake Wally (Abbie Cornish), a lonely American trophy wife trapped in an abusive marriage in 1998 Manhattan.
Wally’s husband (Richard Coyle) is an abusive, controlling and apparently exceedingly rich psychiatrist we are meant to see as the analog to Simpson’s first husband, the Navy pilot Earl Winfield Spencer, an alleged alcoholic and brute who (in this version) beats a naked Wallis into barrenness in the film’s opening minutes.
And this is just the beginning of Wally’s many points of identification with Simpson and as she mopes around her old place of employment- Sotheby’s - which is preparing to auction off the expensive detritus of the royal couple’s estate, she’s occasionally visited by Simpson’s ghost, who is just full of New Age self-help platitudes. (Though at one point, the spirit pointedly advises her stalker to “get a life.”)
More to the point, Wally meets the Russian emigre security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), who while no crown prince, has his own good qualities. (Actually, at this point, Wally is probably Edward rather than Wallis, because she’s got to sacrifice her kept existence for the possibility of sublime love. Get it?)
If, like me, you’ve ever wondered where the ordinary folk who do the humble work in glittering Manhattan actually live, Madonna provides an answer - they live in funky, $1 million lofts in Brooklyn with grand pianos they play beautifully, copies of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and tastefully displayed photographs of their conveniently dead wives.)
In short, the real failing of W.E. is a simply terrible script that cribs from Julie and Julia as it crosscuts between the lives of these female martyrs, one who threw away her cherished anonymity for love while the other will probably have to go back to work at some point.
Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy, Andrea Riseborough, Richard Coyle, Oscar Isaac
R, for violence, nudity and language
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/27/2012
Print Headline: W.E.