At one point in these bizarre frames, Wallis Simpson picks up a tube of red lipstick and, like a heart-struck teen, pens her and Edward’s initials on the mirror of a vanity table: W.E. From that credibility-straining scene, the movie gets its title and, I’m afraid, the director got her inspiration. For Madonna, what better symbol than a vanity mirror for her vanity project – both are stylish and both reflect nothing more than their own emptiness.
Then again, seldom has empty been so busy. That’s because there are two Wallises here, the old one who, back in England in the 1930s, prompted a king to give up his throne, and the new Wally who, in Manhattan in 1998, is infatuated with her namesake. In a seemingly random succession of brief vignettes, the story flits haphazardly between the pair, never alighting for long but always keen to impress upon us that each femme has her problems.
The woes of old Wallis we know about, although, while doing little to expand our knowledge, Madonna is awfully eager to place the woman in a favourable light. A flatterer and a social climber? Maybe, but what was an ambitious lady of the time to do? A Nazi sympathizer along with her royal hubby? Nope, “They may have been naive, but that doesn’t make them Nazis.” Hounded shamelessly by the press? You bet, and the celebrity behind the camera can vouch for the horror of that ordeal.
Meanwhile, in the relative present, new Wally is a rich socialite abused by her philandering husband and taking daily refuge in the Sotheby auction house, which just happens to be hawking memorabilia from the Duke and Duchess’s estate – white dress gloves, Cartier jewellery, a silver pill box. There, in a reversal of the king-and-the-commoner scenario, the uptown gal is wooed by a lowly Russian security guard – not so lowly, however, that he doesn’t play a lovely Rachmaninoff on the concert piano in his large and stylish loft apartment. Clearly, Madonna is willing to sacrifice any shred of logic on the altar of high style.
Moreover, like Wallis with her couture gowns, like Edward with his Windsor knot, she prefers her style blissfully stripped of intellectual content. The Material Girl is intent on redeeming Wallis Simpson by making a virtue of her vice – not to mention a bespoke movie that is itself a totem of style for style’s sake.
This may explain why everyone here is all dressed up with nothing to say, why the costumes parade about in splendid disregard for any drama, and why the director keeps twirling the camera as prettily, and pointlessly, as a cheerleader with a baton. In such a void, even the best performances – Andrea Riseborough does a fine job capturing the look and manner of old Wallis – get robbed of their merit, feeling curiously empty. As for Abbie Cornish as new Wally, she has zilch to work with beyond the thankless task of peering wistfully at pill boxes and cueing up the flashbacks. In fact, the whole twin-narrative structure seems just another decorative add-on – like a pair of bookends in want of a book.
Weirder still, sometimes the bookends meet, when old Wallis and new Wally sashay over the decades to have a quick chat, sitting down on a Central Park bench or in a Paris hotel room. On such occasions, the elder proves the more talkative, dispensing helpful advice to the younger like, “Get a life” or, more expansively, “The most important thing is your face – the other end you just sit on.”
Madonna has obviously taken that latter instruction to heart. W.E. is a heavily made-up face masquerading as a movie and demanding to be admired – demands that might just leave you with an acute pain in the other end.
- Directed by Madonna
- Written by Madonna and Alex Keshishian
- Starring Andrea Riseborough and Abbie Cornish
- Classification: 14A
- 1.5 stars