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by Eric Kohn
December 6, 2011 12:42 PM
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The Best Way To Enjoy 'W.E'? A Madonna Vanity Project.

James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough in Madonna's "W.E." TWC
"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.

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2 Comments

  • addissondewitt | August 26, 2012 5:57 PMReply

    Having watched this film on a transatlantic flight, completely unaware of who made it, my experience watching it was interested enjoyment.The time shifts were ambitious and the use of so called flash technique was complimentary in keeping my interest in following two stories which were compelling. They were just tentative enough to keep us wondering and moving enough to encourage understanding the possibilities in what the film maker would like us to consider.The costume design and artistic direction are excellent and not at all careless or commonplace.At least Madonna is willing to take chances and make mistakes which is the hallmark of a serious artist.Clearly the director has made a film with passion and care and i look forward to many more independent films which demonstrate her unique point of view and aesthetic sensibilities.True, the director has just begun to direct and write film so there are bound to be critiques , but for the film enthusiast this film is entertaining and daring and much more accessible to the general public than the indy movies most " film critics" tout. I do not understand how this movie is not considered a promising effort that points to many more interesting developed films by the director that will surprise and delight .The director displays much that is personal both in the story and in the myriad choices she makes in the artistic direction, costume ,set...etc.Whatever the expert critics say........all of us sitting in the middle row of the dc-10 enjoyed it, and film critics would rather we grin and bare watching the indy films they have officially condoned. Also... the general continuity was excellent and premiered a thoughtful refined taste.

  • Diane Rubinstein | December 6, 2011 8:47 PMReply

    Am awful film. C+? You were overly generous.