W.E. – The Review

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Looking to be come a ” queen of all media “, pop icon Madonna has stepped behind the camera to direct her first feature film, W.E. ( maybe the first woman singer/star to do so since Barbra Streisand? ). Here she tackles two stories that intertwine several decades apart : a fictional young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a wealthy NYC doctor in 1998 and the true life romance between Wallis Simpson ( like Madonna, a style icon ) and Edward, the Duke of Windsor ( the two form the title’s WE ) during the 1930’s. Other films have mixed historical and fictional characters ( RAGTIME, TIME AFTER TIME ), while others have featured modern-day characters getting inspiration from the past ( JULIE AND JULIA ), so does this new film put a fresh spin on these concepts? And after a spotty career acting in front of the camera ( for every DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and DICK TRACY, there’s a SHANGHAI SURPRISE and SWEPT AWAY ) will  Madonna find consistent success directing motion pictures?

Let’s take a look at the two timelines ( and heroines ). In 1998 Manhattan, Abbie Cornish plays Wallis AKA Wally ( named by her mother and grandmother after Wallis Simpson ) a young woman sharing a swank high-rise apartment with her wealthy surgeon hubby. Wally is taking measures to have a child while her indifferent spouse spends hours away from her ( hospital business ). She’s drawn back to Southeby’s auction house ( her former employer ) where several items from the Windsor estate are on display prior to a major auction event. There Wally also strikes up a friendship with one of the new security guards, Russian born Evgeni ( Oscar Isaac ). Interwoven through this are flashbacks to the life of the real Wallis Simpson ( Andrea Riseborough ). When we first meet her she’s being beaten by her brutish first husband. Later she’s traveling with her second hubby Ernest and introduced to Edward ( James D’Arcy ), the next in line to the British throne. They meet and soon become inseperable as Ernest steps aside. This causes a huge scandal and Edward abdicates ( his famous ” woman I love” radio speech ). The couple spend the rest of the lives together, traveling the globe while in exile from Great Britain.

Such is the film’s meager plot. Like Clint Eastwood’s J EDGAR, the movie would’ve been much improved and more compelling by staying with one timeline or story. Just as 1998 picks up some momentum, boom-we’re back in 1936. At times the ladies pop in and meet ( Wally turns down a NYC corner and there’s Mrs. Simpson ). Often the film seems like ” lifestyle porn ” ( look at that car! The furnishings! The gowns! ). Madonna’s camera lovingly zooms in on every detail when it’s not spinning around the opulent rooms with one of the characters. Rapid cuts and changes in film stock attempt to liven up the party scenes too frequently. And I hate to be a prig, but the constant smoking, for gosh sakes!! The first shot of Edward is him waltzing with a butt hanging out of his mouth! Inches from his dance partner’s face! Yuchh! I know it was fashionable then, but now’s it’s just gross!  Things are not much better in the modern story. Perhaps that’s the reason for the 1998 setting, years before Mayor Bloomberg banished smokers to the street corners. I mean Evgeni’s chain-smoking in the video monitor rooms. And what kind of security is he?! He gazes silently as Wally fondles almost everything in the prized collection! The actors do what they can with these stock roles. The women are noble sufferers while they men are either violent brutes, affable cuckholds, ” cling-y” royals, or exotic, smouldering hunks. Riseborough and D’Arcy model classic fashions while recreating scenes better told in THE KING’S SPEECH. We never really get to know this woman who was the ultimate upwardly mobile traveler. I won’t go into the campy, cringe-inducing scene with her entertaining the Duke near the end of his life ( at least we see that he’s hooked up to several tubes, paying the price for his carton a day habit ). Cornish seems to be in a fog while Isaac tries to be sensitive and sexy ( the two actors worked previously together in SUCKER PUNCH. Well, third time’s the charm! ). Oh and did I mention that Evgeni’s a reader and a widower! A movie dream date! W.E. is a laboriously paced cinematic endurance test. Madonna may be a gifted film maker, but her talent is not on display here. This movie is literally style over substance, all that’s missing is Robin Leach screaming out the prices of the props.

Overall Rating: 1 Out of 5 Stars

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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