*1/2 (out of four)
“W.E.” may be Madonna’s second directorial effort, but she still tells a story like a virgin.
Guiding a script she wrote/botched with Alek Keshishian, the Material Girl takes a step forward visually from 2008’s sloppy, incoherent “Filth and Wisdom, which isn’t saying much. Unfortunately she also remains totally incompetent when it comes to shaping a story around humans with credible human feelings. Andrea Riseborough stars as Wallis Simpson, the real-life American woman whose controversial romance with Prince Edward (James D’Arcy) undermines his place on the throne (leaving room for his brother Bertie, the subject of “The King’s Speech”). Clearly a “commoner” like Kate Middleton would not have been so beloved in 1936.
Supposedly, the relationship between Wallis and Edward signified one of the great loves of the 20th century. Yet “W.E.” (whose title refers to “Wallis.Edward.”) vapidly suggests that Wallis simply preferred a rich, powerful guy like Edward to her perfectly nice husband Ernest (David Harbour), who was already a big step up from Wallis’ abusive first husband. Eighty years ago, evidently, there was quite the market for a woman named Wallis.
In late-‘90s Manhattan, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish of “Sucker Punch”) has the unfortunate circumstance of being named after Simpson and the more unfortunate circumstance of being married to an untrustworthy man (Richard Coyle), who doesn’t share her desire to have a baby. Since her spouse doesn’t allow her to work, Wally spends her free time at Sotheby’s, where she fixates on an upcoming auction of Wallis/Edward items and a security guard (Oscar Isaac) talks to her with obvious hopes of doing more than walk her home.
Cutting back and forth between the beginning of the century and the end, Madonna drains all momentum from both storylines while misguidedly suggesting Wallis and Wally faced the same situation. Should we really feel sorry for Wallis and the privacy she sacrificed when ditching her husband for a man she should have expected would change her normal life completely? “W.E.” centers on a woman who seems to have known the consequences but whines anyway when they come true. It’s also unclear what Edward sees in her, other than her willingness to ask him about his work and ability to make a good martini. Wally, meanwhile, oddly lacks friends and family for support but proves that anyone can obtain private access to confidential documents by simply lying and saying, “I’m writing a book.”
Even more problematically, Madonna again demonstrates horrid instincts as both writer and director, featuring dream sequences in which Wallis talks to Wally and absurdly emphasized smacks of a gavel during the auction. (It’s just a sale, not a death sentence.) Based on her awkward Super Bowl halftime performance, the time she spent making the grueling, deeply unromantic “W.E.” would have been better spent on dance practice.
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