Technically W.E. is not Madonna’s directorial debut—in 2008 she helmed Filth and Wisdom, a “comedy/drama/musical/romance” about a cross-dressing Ukrainian dominatrix with rock-n-roll dreams that made it to ten theaters in the United States. I was unaware of this until just recently, and while normally I’d seek out a director’s earlier work in order to glean some insights into their auteurship, I’m afraid I’m going to have to take a pass on catching up with Filth and Wisdom. After all, there’s hair to be cleaned out of the tub drain. However I did see W.E. last month, the morning after Madonna’s Super Bowl appearance. (As religious scholars know, God likes to pile on the plagues.)
W.E. is Madonna’s attempt to both rehabilitate the “greatest love story” reputation of Wallis Simpson (the terrific Andrea Riseborough) and Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and indulge her passion of the past 30 years: further lacquering the Myth of Madonna. With all the nuance of a high-school creative-writing assignment, the film juxtaposes the affair that forced Edward to abdicate the British throne in 1936 with a modern-day domestic drama centered on chic New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abby Cornish).
In the 1998 “here and now,” melancholy Wally seeks solace from her failing marriage (to Coupling and Strange’s Richard Coyle, gone from clown to cad) by browsing a Sotheby’s exhibit of Wallis and Edward’s belongings and flirting with a smolderingly sexy Russian security guard-cum-intellectual (Oscar Isaac) who works there. In the world of high-class failed marriages and exorbitant retail therapy this is known as a “two-fer.”
Naturally Wally (and Madonna) finds all sorts of parallels and emotional inspiration from Simpson’s story. For starters Wallis was brash and outspoken and did it all for love. Most of all, she didn’t let any of those British fuddy duddies push her around when she came in and tried to trade up from American Socialite to Queen of England while jeopardizing the British Monarchy during the run-up to a world war.
(If you think you know the Edward-Wallis story from The King’s Speech, Madonna is here to correct your misunderstanding: in W.E. the historical figures of George VI and his wife Elizabeth–sympathetically portrayed in TKS by Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter–are presented as a stammering baboon and his shrilly snobbish Lady MacBeth. The future Queen Mother is so sneeringly mean to Wallis in W.E. I’m surprised Madonna didn’t pop in a scene of her poking a kitten with a stick.)
Modern-minded Wallis also has lessons to teach us from the ‘30s about how the press loves to use a trumped-up scandal to tear down a strong woman. (Though Madonna whining about unwanted media attention is like an arsonist complaining about the heat.)
In fact the most interesting part of W.E. is what is so glaringly and intentionally not there: Though present-day Wally meets up with Mohamed Al-Fayed (father of Dodi) to sate her Wallis-fixation by reading the Simpson journals in his possession, the film goes out of its way not to look doomed Diana’s way. Not wallowing in easy parallels between Princess Di and Wallis the Throne-wrecker is Madonna’s one bit of thematic restraint, and that almost makes the decision compelling. Almost.
Otherwise Madonna’s film struts and prances like a shiny, skittish show horse. The director is clearly besotted by the luxuriously cold surfaces of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, and she feels like she has a lot to say about women and how they men they love end up defining and derailing them. Unfortunately her insights aren’t nearly as insightful as she thinks, and while (surprise!) she fully grasps the creation of imagery, Madonna can’t make all that glamor and pose work for her ideas.
It’s probably unfair to view W.E. through the prism of Madonna’s performing career, but just as Ford’s sense of fashion and style enriched A Single Man, Madonna’s thirty years as a pop-music magpie continues on screen. She has a great eye for what looks nice and works on a shiny surface level, but no clue how to build any genuine depth under all that flash.
The result is an arch muddle of Meaning about life, love, and thwarted motherhood. But mostly it’s about Madonna’s self-aggrandizing sense of tragic ambition and status seeking. W.E. wants to be about the struggle of powerful women denied the (exceedingly well-appointed) corridors of power, but it feels more like “Why can’t I be rich and in love and the Queen of England?”
In keeping with that idealization of social climbing, W.E. is a glossy catalog of self-consciously stunning and stylish clothes, jewelry, china settings, and bathroom fixtures—you know you’re touring among the manor-ed one percent when the giving of custom-made Cartier crucifixes is a major love metaphor.
And as in her pop music, Madonna has carefully gathered folks around her who know their craft, such as cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski (The Young Victoria, The Beaver), and the acting is mostly respectable, or as good as you can hope from thespians asked to reflect deeply and emote while strolling (figuratively and literally) through a cold-but-classy auction house.
But in the end the show belongs—as I suspect all shows do—to Madonna, and as such it’s a pretty, shallow mess that has much to say and no idea how to say it other than to just say it. Still, on some meta-level calling W.E. the film a “mildly fascinating, deeply irritating misfire” feels applicable for both the love lives of its dual protagonists and the serious artistic ambitions of its preening, self-obsessed creator.