W.E.: Madonna’s first film isn’t one to cherish

Art & Lit Screen

Some films come with baggage, and few as much as W.E. – short for Wallis and Edward (VIII): the depiction of the affair that led to Edward’s abdication and Wallis’ vilification. Yes, Madonna directs. Yes, the subject featured in last year’s The King’s Speech. And yes, apparently a sympathetic portrait of Wallis Simpson is scandalous. Some of this is valid; some is not.

It is not hard to see how Madonna relates to her protagonist: a fun-loving woman who becomes persecuted by the prejudiced press. Therefore straightaway it is far from a professional piece; more an emotional one. She is reluctant to engage with some historical realities – the meeting with Hitler is mentioned but never explained; Wallis’ detractors are one-dimensional and callous – in preference of the progress from bright young thing to trapped in marriage to a naïve husband. The interpretation is emphasised by the framing tale of Wally, obsessed with the nineties auction of her namesake’s possessions as her marriage breaks apart. Julie & Julia meets The King’s Speech.

Broadly speaking, W.E. has a bad, ‘fun’ half and a good, ‘serious’ half. The first hour is a complete mess of characters and timelines and Wally superfluously moping while imagining episodes of Wallis’ life which are too short for impact. Apart from deviations into romcom, the film takes itself too seriously here, particularly with annoying repeated cuts and close-ups – for some reason constantly intermixing higher and lower quality film, TV documentary with movie – as it tries to be artsy without substance. The intermixes do not vanish, but otherwise fortunately midway things calm down as we stay with W.E. for longer and reach the history which deserves such treatment. The film even shows some self-awareness: Wally’s obsession is not helping, the point made that this is not a fairytale.

At least the abdication scene is good, despite it all. Instead of martinis and the Sex Pistols (it does not make sense in context either), we linger on Wallis’ despair and George VI’s apprehension. (Credit to Laurence Fox, acting in Colin Firth’s shadow and scene-stealing despite an appallingly underwritten part.) However, while it is the culmination, it is not the end of the story – thirty minutes left – merely Wallis’s. The conflicting halves of quality are largely due to awful pacing and an overlong running time, plus extensive focus on Wally when her section is most flawed – the past’s acting and writing are much better – despite the entire selling point being Wallis Simpson’s perspective. (The movie ensures you know this is novel by having it stated outright, concerned you might not have appreciated it after the first ninety minutes.) Hence it is frustrating when you are constantly wrenched away, particularly from such fantastic performances – especially Andrea Riseborough as Wallis.

Frustrating describes W.E. in general. It does actually touch on some issues – pregnancy and infertility – but it is debatable how well they are handled since despite its own words the film reaches for a happy ending. W.E. has great sets and wonderful actors, but little faith the past is enough. As interesting as it is seeing the two women interact – Wallis satisfyingly berating Wally – it does make you wonder about the focus. While Wally imagining the story explains the perspective and prejudices, it also means this is not the pure W.E. story advertised, but another female empowerment story. The controversial subject means that this should not be chick-lit.