After seeing Madonna's love letter to controversial Wallis Simpson "W.E" get savaged by the mainstream media, I was somewhat apprehensive about the film. The love affair between Simpson and King Edward VIII is a stunning and momentous true-life story that resulted in him abdicating the crown and becoming a lifelong exile from the country he had served. It is unparalleled in terms of historical significance. What a fantastic subject! I knew that Madonna had a particular interest in Simpson's side of the story, so this seemed a novel approach to a somewhat familiar tale. From advance previews, it seemed that the film was positioned to be a sweeping romance so I didn't really expect a by-the-numbers historical biography. And in truth, I learned little new about the pair that I hadn't seen in countless other representations. But even taken on its own terms, I don't know that "W.E." really accomplishes what it set out to do. It's not all bad, by any stretch, but the movie keeps the viewer at arm's length throughout.
In a strange decision, Madonna and her co-writer Alek Keshishian filter the famous love story through the eyes of a modern woman (Abbie Cornish). Cornish plays a rather expressionless upscale housewife tortured by an extravagant lifestyle and an inattentive husband. Just to elicit some sympathy for her plight of complete freedom and wealth, her husband is made out to be a cackling caricature of evil. Cornish is obsessively fixated on Wallis Simpson in a very creepy way (Simpson stories play non-stop on the radio and TV, she spends every waking moment studying memorabilia from the time period, and she has imaginary conversations with her idol). Of course, this aloof and troubled married woman is like catnip to a museum security officer (Oscar Isaac) and we all know where that is headed. In a fugue state, we see flashbacks to the courtship between Simpson and the King. Luckily, the scenes from the past are certainly more compelling than the contemporary plot thread which did not elicit my interest at all.
Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy are actually quite good in the titular roles and any opportunity to escape into their world is a welcome one. However, if you want solid history, this isn't going to provide it. It's a bare bones examination of the political climate, the other members of the monarchy, or anything of substance. The more controversial aspects of the pair are mentioned, but dismissed as sheer rumor without any introspection. Okay, fine, than hopefully this is a stunning romance. Well, not really. I never felt the real chemistry between these two. In fact, Simpson (especially in their courtship) seems to be manipulating the relationship from the start. I'm willing to believe this was a tremendous love story in real life, but this screenplay never convinces me in the film. And when we're supposed to view Simpson with great empathy at what she's sacrificed, her supposed misery and suffering just hasn't been well established.
And yet, for its faults, I must admit that this is one gorgeous movie! The shot compositions are interesting, the sets are extravagant, the Oscar nominated costumes are lovely, the orchestrations are lush and beautiful. Technically, "W.E." is extremely impressive. The film's shortcomings have little to do with the actors. If half of the movie hadn't been spent in modern times, this might well have been an entirely more satisfying experience. I didn't hate the movie by any means, I think it fell short of its potential and the narrative framing device was a particularly egregious mistake. About 2 1/2 stars, I'll round up for what might have been. KGHarris, 4/12.