W.E., Madonna’s second outing as a director, is a lavish, exceptionally decadent affair that is pleasant on the eyes but ultimately is a case of style over substance.
Despite its drawbacks, this is undoubtedly an ambitious project for the director, who also co-wrote the story with Alex Keshishian. The film tells two parallel stories, juxtaposing the love between former King Edward VIII and American socialite Wallis Simpson with a contemporary Manhattan woman’s marriage breakdown and subsequent relationship.
The story of the turbulent and controversial affair between heir to the British throne Prince Edward (James D’Arcy) with a married woman Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) is a well-known tale that fascinates people to this day, and Madonna seeks to show Wallis’s side of the story with this treatment.
Their lives are shown to be wonderfully extravagant and carefree, but as the story progresses the cracks begin to show, climaxing with Edward’s shock decision to abdicate in order to marry Wallis.
Modern-day New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), who is named after the famous Simpson, becomes obsessed with their story, devoting hours out of her day to attend a Sotheby's exhibition containing the couple's belongings which are being auctioned off.
Wally is unhappily married to an abusive, mostly absent shrink, who she suspects of having an affair, but during her frequent visits to the auction house she slowly becomes acquainted with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac).
The Winsdors' tale is cut in with Wally’s journey of self-discovery, which can sometimes jar and seem like a bit of a stretch. Scenes in which Wallis appears in Wally’s mind’s eye and speaks to her are perhaps the hardest to swallow, while a dance scene with Wallis scored with The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant is the most badly judged part of the film.
Performances vary across the leads. Riseborough in particular puts in a stand-out performance as the effervescent, witty Wallis, who lit up a room with her magnetism and effortlessly put together appearance. D’Arcy is good as the charming Prince, however Cornish is flat-voiced and blank as Wally, making her a one-dimensional, dull character.
It could be argued that the real stars of the show, however, are the film’s utterly gorgeous costumes, which are incredibly well researched, executed and filmed in envy-inducing detail. Costume designer Arianne Phillips, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work on Walk the Line, does a stellar job of recreating the sumptuous wardrobes of the fashion-conscious royals as well as Wally’s Park Avenue lady attire.
For fashion fans, this could be worth a look for the costumes alone. Also, the soundtrack is mostly very effective at drawing the audience in, as evidenced by Madonna's Golden Globe win in the Best Original Song category.
This was obviously a labour of love for Madonna, and although some may hate it, others will find a lot to like.