“W.E.” is less outright bad than underwhelming; if the director were unknown, it would hardly deserve notice. Like her first film, the 2008 “Filth and Wisdom,” it suffers from countless storytelling flaws. But where her debut was a bizarre low-budget and blatantly amateur British comedy that embraced its rough edges, “W.E.” is all sleek, polished surfaces and overabundant romanticism. Together, they also reveal two sides of Madonna’s career, the oscillation between sacred and profane that defines her iconography.
The story has a simplistic concept and an epic scope. Covering two time periods, “W.E.” follows soul-searching New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish in a committed performance), a woman suffering from her tortured marriage to an abusive man (Richard Coyle). She finds solace in obsessing over the famous affair between King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), whose allure eventually led Edward to step down from the throne. (Their initials form the title.)
Intrigued by the fairy-tale quality of stories surrounding their relationship, she pores over their former possessions at a Sotheby’s auction. In flashbacks presumably taking place inside Wally’s head, the affair parallels the ups and downs of her own life, sometimes intruding on it. At times calling to mind an unfunny “Midnight in Paris,” the movie finds Wally occasionally facing Wallis’ ghost, admiring the phantom woman’s luxuries while attempting to get closer to the reality of her experiences.
Madonna’s vision is simultaneously beautiful and bland, eventually developing into a treatise on the pratfalls of fame. As Wallis gets closer to understanding the nature of the affair and the impact of public scrutiny on the lovers’ lives, the fashionable exterior becomes its greatest conceit. Both women face spousal abuse and find an escape in forbidden love — Wallis with her king and Wally with a cultured Sotheby’s security guard (Oscar Isaac).
Wally’s soul-searching mirrors Madonna’s multifaceted career, which extended beyond pop music long ago. As a filmmaker, she’s clearly intent on digging into the process and with the aid of cinematographer Hagen Bodanski (“The Lives of Others”), the film’s slick images of British royalty and Manhattan high society create a consistently dreamy feel. However, the fashion-commercial visuals come to dominate every scene and drain emotion from the frame.
Still, Madonna keeps the proceedings watchable. At one point, she indulges in a silly montage that juxtaposes the auction with images of the King and his lover sharing a giddy night out. Madonna sets the entire sequence to The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” while Wallis’ eyes widen with envy as she images the fun the couple must have had. In cinematic terms, it’s supreme overstatement… but this is Madonna, after all.
In fact, “W.E.” derives its entire value from supreme overstatement. The Material Girl uses the materials of film like she uses the medium of music, using flashiness to define the atmosphere and working backward to eke out the darker themes. Unfortunately, while the movie looks great and barrels forward with consistent style, the gimmick of two time periods grows stale and the emotional value turns cold along with it.
The only lingering effect is, for better or worse, the filmmaker believes in her process. Again with the overstatement: “Do you believe we can change our destiny?” Wally asks Wallis during one of their conversations across the time barrier. “You know the answer to that,” Wally says. If their exchange gives voice to Madonna’s internal monologue, then “W.E” is surely a personal work, if not an especially profound one.
criticWIRE grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? In September, “W.E.” faced a wave of negative press at the Venice Film Festival and a slightly better reaction shortly afterward in Toronto. The Weinstein Company opens the movie for a one-week awards-qualifying run in Los Angeles this week ahead of its wider release in February. Conveniently, that’s the same month Madonna will perform as the halftime act at the 2012 Super Bowl, which should give the movie an added publicity boost. Her fame should help overcome mixed word-of-mouth and bring the movie a respectable, if not stellar, reception in limited release.