Rated: R, Runtime: 119 mins.
Stars: James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough
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W.E. (which Madonna pronounces as “we”) stands for the first initials of the given names of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. As we all know, Edward abdicated the British throne in 1936 to marry the twice-divorced American, and the two settled into a life of exile as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Madonna found theirs to be one of the greatest love stories of all time, and she has admitted identifying with Wallis, a foreigner in a foreign land prone to negative characterizations by the press.
Hence, it may come as no surprise that Madonna takes liberties with the historic record here and portrays Wallis over-sympathetically. She also never really uncovers the mystery behind the magnetism of the relationship, and why this one man was willing to give up so much for this one woman. Still, if she had limited her subject matter to a sophisticated portrait of the royal couple, played by James D’Arcy (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and An American Haunting) and Andrea Riseborough (Made in Dagenham), she might have pulled this off. Both are fine actors, and, thanks to fabulous costume and production design, the film is a delight to consider as a period piece.
But Madonna pairs the Edward/Wallis story with a modern-day fictitious tale of a wealthy New Yorker named Wally Winthrop (played by Abbie Cornish, the Australian actress probably best known for Bright Star), who is obsessed with Wallis Simpson, perhaps in part because her mother named her after her. Winthrop is unhappily married to a borderline abusive husband, but is nonetheless frantically trying to become pregnant with him. In between fertility treatments, she visits Sotheby’s, which is auctioning several items from the Windsors’ estate. There, she meets a Russian security guard (Robin Hood’s Oscar Isaac), with whom she contemplates an affair.
This isn’t the first time a biopic has been cast within a modern-day story. Think Julie & Julia, for one. But Madonna and her cowriter, Alek Keshishian, who previously collaborated with her on the Madonna: Truth or Dare documentary, bounce from one continent and time period to another, drawing parallels between the love stories that border on the preposterous. Even the characters make the time warp: At one point in the film, Wallis Simpson appears to Wally Winthrop, slaps her and tells her to get a life.
And despite some decent cinematography, many of the key scenes come off as over-produced music videos.
W.E. is all too rich, too precious, too much. Sometimes less is more, especially when the alternative is a cacophony.
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