Madonna’s second directorial venture, W.E. is an, ahem, serious biopic chronicling the love affair between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, paralleling their story with that of a modern-day woman named Wally Winthrop. Need Katie Byrne say more?
The idea of a 20th century gal such as Wally being obsessed with 1930s vixen Wallis is as improbable as it sounds, and Wally’s passion for ‘that woman’ never really appears on screen. Abby Cornish’s Wally is brittle, dry and dull – there is not an element of passion within the performance that would suggest or justify her supposed love of all things Simpson.
Andrea Riseborough’s portrayal of Wallis Simpson is, one imagines, spot on – she captures the glamour of the early 21st century and the brutal fragility of an inappropriate romance perfectly, and, seeing Riseborough’s Simpson, it is little surprise that Wally wishes to emulate her sophistication and charm.
The tedious parallel narratives are loosely, if somewhat tenuously linked. Whilst Wally stalks the exhibition room at Sotheby’s, gazing lustfully at items owned by Wallis, Wallis escapes an abusive first marriage and leaves her second by falling for a prince. The scandal of Wallis and Edward’s love affair is mirrored by the deterioration of Wally’s own marriage – her husband is an aggressive (and drunk) psychiatrist – and Wally ultimately falls into the arms (and bed) of the brooding Sotheby’s security guard, Evgeni.
Obviously, the premise of the whole film is ridiculous. We do not sympathise, or empathise, with Wallis-obsessed Wally. If anything, as we watch her stroke a table cloth used by the royal couple, we wonder why she has not been diagnosed as clinically insane by her husband.
Wallis is the rational, more likeable character – we can fully understand her plight as she struggles to come to terms with the implication of her marriage to the Prince. Indeed, a personal highlight of the film came when, during one of a number of dream sequence (mais oui…), Wallis slaps Wally across the face, telling her not be so ridiculous. Yeah, Wally. You heard her.
The film is cram-packed with moments so mind-shatteringly awful that you wonder if the writers decided to turn it into a spoof halfway through. For instance: Wally asks her love interest Evgeni, how he learnt to play the piano so well (for naturally, he is a tortured genius. We would expect nothing less). He tells her that his grandfather taught him; grandpapa had great expectations for him. ‘Some people say,’ murmurs Wally, seductively, ‘that expectation leads to disappointment’.
There are two moments in the film that I think best portray the topsy-turvy, weird yet strangely brilliant, totally awful and yet utterly watchable elements of the film. In the first, Wallis Simpson – at a dinner party – dances provocatively (raises her skirt, gasp, etc.) to Pretty Vacant by The Sex Pistols. Yup. And in the second, in strolls Muhammad Al Fayed, who, FYI, bought the estate of Wallis and Edward. Wally goes to meet him to read the love letters of the royal pair, and they have a Deeply Meaningful conversation about the persecution of the foreigner (Wally thinking of Wallis; Al Fayed thinking of his son; and Madonna, I suspect, most probably thinking of herself during her stint as Mrs Guy Ritchie). As I said before – brilliantly awful.
W.E. is in cinemas now.