It’s hard not to take your preconceived notions into a film. Even though we’re not supposed to, we get excited about new films from people we like, and we have the opposite reaction to ones from people we don’t. We haven’t seen Madonna’s first film, Filth and Wisdom, but general consensus was not great. However, we tried to keep an open mind for her latest.
New York, 1998. Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is married to a very successful, famous doctor (Richard Coyle) but their relationship is not as rosy as it seems. She finds comfort in her obsession with Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), and in flashbacks we see how Wallis risked and gave up everything to be with the man she loved: Prince Edward (James D’Arcy).
First of all, it’s unclear what W.E. wants to be. It’s certainly not a historical drama, with roughly half of the running time given to Cornish’s Wally. It often feels as though Madonna is aiming for magical realism, with Wallis appearing as a sort of spirit guide to offer Wally some words of wisdom but this is refuted when she snaps “Wake up! This isn’t a fairytale!” and slaps Wally. The “not a fairytale” point is also rammed home with the physical and mental abuse from both Wally’s drunken bastard of a husband and Wallis’ first husband, who drags her naked from the bathtub and savagely beats her. This then sits utterly at odds with the more fairytale moments, such as Wally being able to call up a friend and ask her “How well do you know Mohamed al-Fayed?”
For all the unfortunate comparisons with The King’s Speech, the historical stuff is marginally more successful thanks to an excellent performance from Riseborough. It’s a whip-smart, powerful, intelligent turn that’s both strong and vulnerable and it deserves much better than the script that it serves. And the script (by Madonna and Alex Keshishian) is awful. The handsome set-design and Madonna’s often impressive eye for light and dark are consistently let down by dialogue that is beyond wooden. The writer/director does address the accusations that Wallis and Edward were racists and Nazi sympathisers, but only by broadly refuting them. The very talented Cornish (Limitless, Bright Star) fares worse than Riseborough, suffering from a character whose only real characteristics are that she is obsessed with Wallis Simpson and that she was supposed to find a Prince Charming and have a child but has ended up in the clutches of a cruel, violent adulterer. Any guesses on whether that nice (but frankly rather voyeuristic) Russian security guard (Drive’s Oscar Isaac) with a dead wife and a nice apartment will offer an escape?
Putting the script aside for a moment, the production design is very impressive and there are some striking visuals. The idea of taking Wallis’ perspective is a good one. But, again, the terrible script scuppers any chance for a success.
Verdict: Over-long and tonally inconsistent, it’s only a very fine performance from Riseborough that manages to wring some emotional truth and nuance from a woeful script.