A notorious American divorcée settles in London, marries a famous Englishman and discomfits the British Empire. Maybe Madonna’s wedding to director Guy Ritchie didn’t cause quite the commotion of Wallis Simpson’s to Edward VIII, who abdicated his reign as the King of England to marry “the woman I love.” But Madonna — who, the kids may need to be told, was sort of the Lady Gaga of the ’80s — felt enough of a kinship to the Yankee Duchess of York to make a film about Mrs. Simpson’s life, her steely sex appeal and the swank exile she shared with the man who left the throne for her. The title, W.E., surely refers not just to Wallis and Edward but also to the symbiotic sisterhood, the quintessential we-ness, of Wallis and Madonna.
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Filled with adultery, chicanery and enduring love, the Wallis-and-Edward story is the stuff of TV soap opera on an elevated plane. Small-screen movies and miniseries of the duo have starred Faye Dunaway and Richard Chamberlain, Cynthia Harris and Edward Fox, Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews; and last year the couple, played by Eve Best and Guy Pearce, took supporting roles in The King’s Speech. With that film having won oodles of Oscars and imprinted on the popular imagination the notion of Edward as a selfish prig, this might be just the time for a corrective on the strained relations of Edward and his brother Bertie, who became George VI when the smitten King abdicated. For that and other reasons — such as Madonna’s landmark status in popular culture — it’s a shame that W.E. smells so bad.
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Like a transatlantic, cross-generational Julie & Julia, the movie cuts between vignettes in the sad romance of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D’Arcy), before and after he renounced the British throne in 1936, and scenes set in 1990s Manhattan of the fictional Wally (Abbie Cornish). Wallis, the movie says, got severely whacked by her first husband; Wally suffocates in her own loveless marriage to a physician. Named for Simpson, and obsessed with her, Wally wanders New York in a miasma, hoping that some day her prince will come.
Wally attends a sale of the Duke and Duchess’s memorabilia at Sotheby’s, where, contrary to all auction-house protocol, she is allowed to handle the artifacts, and falls for Evgeny, a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac). Apparently her prince was a Romanoff. But her closest encounter is with the ghost of the imperious Wallis, who’s none too pleased to be raised from the dead for a chat with a groupie. “This is not some kind of fairy tale,” the Duchess huffs, slapping Wally. “Wake up!”
The script that Madonna wrote with longtime colleague Alex Keshishian — 20 years ago he directed her amusingly scabrous backstage doc Truth or Dare — is all heat and no light. Primly discounting the evidence of Edward’s Nazi sympathies, and ignoring rumors of the couple’s bisexuality, the director concentrates on gaudy scenes of wife-beating by Wallis’s first husband and bizarre social rituals of the loving couple, as when Wallis dances with a Masai warrior to the strains of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.”
In roles once intended for Vera Farmiga and Ewan McGregor, Riseborough and D’Arcy work hard to give life to thankless roles; but even Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave would have been challenged to make sense of some of the stranger moments of tenderness. Here’s one: On his deathbed, Edward implores, “Dance for me, Wallis”; Chubby Checker materializes on the soundtrack, and the 70-something Simpson performs the twist. True love never looked so uncomfortable.
The director’s debut effort, the 2008 Filth and Wisdom, was at least recognizably Madonna in its tale of a pole dancer and a man in dominatrix drag. W.E. is a failure of less significance: a botched episode of Masterpiece Theater crossed with a lethargic indie angst-othon. This week on TIME.com, Mary Pols gamely offered her choices for the 10 worst films of 2011, and she came up with some supreme stinkers. Yet we suspect that, if viewers emerging from this movie were asked to name their worst of the year, they’d cry W.E., W.E., W.E., all the way home.
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