Madonna’s absurd “W.E.” is the most marvelously wretched film I have seen in quite some time. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it falls into the “so bad it’s good” category. It’s simply fascinating in its terribleness. At first it’s sort of painful, establishing its abysmally ridiculous “Julie and Julia” style narrative and trying to shock a sympathetic reaction to its entirely unlovable characters. Yet as you pay closer attention, the little things become clearer. The rhythm of the film, in every aspect of its style, forms an oddball combination of intentional leitmotif and involuntary obsession. It builds “W.E.” into perhaps the most hilariously dreadful period piece ever filmed.
Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is a wealthy New York woman who gave up her career for her husband, the somewhat horrible William (Richard Coyle). She was named after Wallis Simpson and is absolutely obsessed with that infamous socialite’s life and affair with King Edward VIII. This slightly less than regal couple is played by Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy, for whom Madonna jumps back and forth between two time periods over the course of the film. The conduit is a 1998 Sotheby’s auction of the Duke and Dutchess’s possessions, which Wally haunts while daydreaming about her hero. Eventually the two women start talking, Wallis giving Wally advice and occasionally slapping her. It would be painful if it weren’t also so hilarious.
Along the way there are a number of constant stylistic effects that color the entire experience. Everyone is incessantly pouring cocktails and it becomes no wonder that bad decisions are being made left and right. Wallis seems to attain her social position in England by mixing the best martinis in high society and making sure everyone is always somewhat buzzed. The only character who doesn’t seem interested in tossing it back is Wally, whose husband of course drinks a bit too much. His violence, actually, allows for Madonna to at least try saying something profound.
“W.E.” is mildly ambivalent about whether Wallis Simpson’s rise to fame through marrying higher and higher is something to emulate. At least I think it’s supposed to be. Wally has married one of the wealthiest and most famous doctors in New York City yet her life is miserable. Her obsession with Wallis turns to a very specific calling; telling others how much the American socialite gave up to be with Edward, showing how she wasn’t just a social climber but really did sacrifice quite a lot. The growth in Wally’s character is the gradual realization that money and status might not be worth the abusive husbands and all that arduous shopping, but that it could be more fulfilling to live in Brooklyn with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac).
Unfortunately, all of that barely seeps through because Madonna seems so deeply obsessed with the glamour of Wallis and Edward’s life. She goes far out of her way to tell us that they weren’t Nazi sympathizers, despite the mounds and mounds of evidence. The film almost skips World War II entirely. “W.E.” also exhibits incredible contempt for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, which so soon after “The King’s Speech” is more than a bit comical. Madonna has George stutter like an idiot, without an ounce of compassion, while poor Natalie Dormer finds herself delivering lines that make the future Queen Mother out to be a horrible and vindictive harpy. Edward, on the other hand, is seen traveling through the impoverished towns of South Wales, as if just showing up is enough proof that he cares deeply for the less fortunate.
The best part, however, is how Madonna accentuates the glamorous lifestyle of Wallis and Edward. The film begins with little setting notifications, telling us the place and date so that we can adapt to the two time periods. Yet they never stop and it quickly becomes apparent that the purpose of these notes is so that we can think “ooh, what a fancy and glamorous life these two lead.” At one point we are told of Wallis’s grand location at the beginning and end of the same long driveway in the English countryside. There’s great potential for a dangerous drinking game, throwing one back every time Madonna lets us know to which glamorous vacation spot we have moved. That or a shot for each expensive brand that shows up on screen, which would only be slightly less irresponsible.
Finally, the soundtrack is perhaps the worst assembled in the history of the period piece. It’s not the fact that modern music is being used at 1930s parties: if it were a consistent aural palette that could work beautifully. Here, however, there seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to the random musical selections. It’s a ramshackle attempt to add musical glamour to these lives without any genuine success. By the end of the film you burst into laughter with each new and hilarious song choice.
Hopefully all of this means that “W.E.” is destined to become a cult classic, with accompanying drinking games galore and even the occasional costume party. In the meantime, however, it’s a deeply fascinating failure that presents two much-maligned historical figures (and again, Nazi sympathizers) in an almost obsessively hagiographic light. Glorious in its wretchedness and unapologetic in its willful ignorance, “W.E.” may very well be the most intentionally side-splitting period piece in the history of cinema. And for that we should all be deeply, if perhaps ironically, thankful.