Review: Madonna’s ‘W.E.’ Is a Visually Attractive Mess of a Movie

By  · Published on February 10th, 2012

Madonna’s second directorial effort W.E. has been greeted by a torrent of negativity, with critics assailing her revisionist portrait of the illicit romance between King Edward VIII and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson to the tune of a 14% on the all-powerful Tomatometer. If it’s not quite the unholy mess that the reviews have promised, there’s no question that this is a sloppy, hubristic affair. It looks pretty, with style and eloquence to spare, but it’s perilously over-directed. Apparently the Material Girl never met a random cross-cut, outsized camera movement, or other unneeded flourish that she didn’t like.

That penchant for pristine visuals at any cost is just part of what detracts from the terrific performance by Andrea Riseborough as Simpson, which could have provided the core of a great picture. The British actress has beauty and intelligence to spare, the sort of charismatic movie star screen presence that carries you through the slowest moments. You want to watch her. Unfortunately, Madonna only lets you do so for half of the movie’s rather trying two hours. The rest of the time, we’re stuck with an unnecessary 1998-set corollary to the 1930s-set main action. There, lonely American Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) obsesses over Wallis and Edward, spending all her time at a Sotheby’s auction of their estate.

So we are treated to endless scenes in which Cornish stands still with her eyes shut tied to a tame romance between Wally and security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) and a lot of stupefying ruminations on the broader meaning of the Edward-Simpson romance. The contemporary stuff is so superfluous, and does so little to enhance the meat of the picture, that one wonders if Madonna (who co-wrote the screenplay) intended it as some sort of self-reflexive portrait of her own interest in the real narrative. Otherwise, it’s just pure filler.

The story of the relationship of Edward (James D’Arcy) and Wallis, which spurred a crisis in Britain because of her divorces (among other reasons) and eventually caused Edward’s abdication from the throne, is a fascinating, multilayered one. There’s a fine movie still to be made about it. Madonna’s simply isn’t it.

Further, the filmmaker loses ample credibility by treating her protagonists as martyrs, whitewashing Edward’s almost-certain Nazi sympathizing and other less savory traits. Madonna has compared herself to Simpson, so the unabashed admiration makes sense, but let’s be honest here: Framing a woman who’s most notable for getting married three times as some sort of misunderstood feminist icon is a big stretch.

The Upside: Andrea Riseborough is great and the movie is filled with sumptuous, refined visuals.

The Downside: The 1998-set scenes are completely unnecessary and Madonna over-directs, adding a wealth of superfluous flourishes such as unneeded pans, aggressive camera movements, slow motion and more over-stylized touches. Further, the film stretches credibility in its treatment of the historical characters.

On the Side: The King’s Speech offers a more effectively crafted, honest-seeming treatment of the same events.