W.E. Won’t Rock YouBy Frederik Sisa @ 4:00 PM January 23, 2012
It’s not a good sign when you suspect filmmakers are lying to you. W.E.’s credits list Abbie Cornish in the role of a maritally distraught New Yorker obsessed with the scandalous love affair between the Once and Never More King of England, Edward VIII, and American Wallis Simpson. But throughout the film I wondered what Charlize Theron was doing slumming around in the glassy lead role when surely there was a better film elsewhere for her to inhabit. The answer, perhaps, is that Ms. Cornish never left the space warp of her previous feature, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.
If a case of mistaken identity was the least of the film’s shortcomings, we’d be in good shape to fill in the gap left open, by necessity, in last year’s The King’s Speech. Madonna, directing her second feature after her Filth and Wisdom blip, delivers a film that is attractive to look at with respectable performances, particularly from Andrea Riseborough in the other dubiously substantial lead role of Wallis. Her subject matter is that rare thing in Hollywood, at least in ambition: An inquiry into women’s roles in the affairs of men. As characters wonder, we often hear asked about the price King Edward (James D’Arcy) paid for his romance with Wallis – he gave up the throne and, in some ways, his country – but when do we express interest in the price Wallis had to pay? If we were to take our historical cues solely from the movies, our impression of Wallis from The King’s Speech would be that of a reckless social climber with questionable motives. Presumably, it’s our comfort with this impression that Madonna wants us to question, leading us to consider Wallis’s loss of privacy, reputation and standing.
Any hopes of meaningful feminist social critique, however, are dashed by Madonna’s focus on a material expression of character that never achieves any measure of psychological insight beyond the way gender roles objectify women through consumerism. Ironically, Madonna’s approach to her subject reinforces rather than refutes this objectification, since the most significant way in which Cornish’s character, named Wally Wintrop for emphasis, relates to Wallis is through high-priced luxury items. Are we similarly expected to relate to the characters through the lavish fashion and interior design Madonna provides us in every frame? More damaging to the film is a problematic narrative approach in which Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian’s use of a fictional character as counterpoint to a fictionalized person comes across as aversion rather than revelation. The allegations of Nazi sympathies (Wallis and Edward did visit Hitler in 1937), the possible affairs, life-in-exile away from England – none of these is given space; the film is too busy indulging the distraction that is Wally’s story. Intentionally or not, the refusal to engage Wallis directly results in a laundering of her reputation.
In addition to her illicit and troublesome romance with Edward, Wallis’s involvement with the royals and life post-exile has more than enough material to stuff a compelling biopic. Yet Madonna’s decision to offer up a parallel narrative renders the film inert, as Wally’s circumstances are only weakly and unclearly analogous to Wallis’s. Worse is how devoid of passion it all is, despite the minefield promised from an emotionally distant and cruel husband, an attempt to have a child, and wooing from a Russian intellectual émigré masquerading as a rakish security guard. Wallis’s story is interesting in and of itself. But you won’t find it in W.E., which undermines its own ambitions by devoting screen time to banalities. Twee cross-time, cross-fantasy intersections between Wallis and Wally, presumably emphasizing Wally’s dubious idealization of Wallis’s life and romance, only muddle the method of an artistic vision that doesn’t seem all that clear in the first place.
By the time the realization sets in that this unengaging film isn’t going to improve, that little voice attempting to justify the time spent watching whispers that Madonna isn’t nearly as bad a director as her reputation suggests, and we can at least enjoy the pretty images. That little voice promptly shuts up when she throws in a Sex Pistols song while Wallis dances with a Masai warrior at one of Edward’s private parties. So jarring, so bizarre is the scene and choice of song– an aberration that derails Abel Korzeniowski‘s mushy classical score – that it seems entirely justified to question the soundness of Madonna’s directorial, never mind storytelling, intuitions.
W.E. Written by Alek Keshishian and Madonna. Directed by Madonna. Starring Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac 119 minutes. Rated R for some domestic violence, nudity and language.
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