Madonna’s biopic of Wallis Simpson was notorious long before screening at the 2011 LFF, following a disastrous premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The version screened in London was reportedly re-edited; one clip released a couple of months ago is indeed different than the version I saw, in that the original is an incomprehensible and absurd rapid montage that was eventually toned down to be much slower but equally as incoherent. It would be interesting to compare the two versions, but it’s not like the London version was a phoenix rising from the ashes of that first screening. It remains one of the most misguided, inept, and unintentionally entertaining movies of recent times, so much so that my derisive giggles threatened to get me in trouble with the huge and scary guy sitting next to me who, commendably, seemed to be able to take this slice of insania a lot more seriously than I could.
The blame for W.E.‘s many sins can be laid at the feet of Madonna and her Truth or Dare director Alek Keshishian, who co-wrote the screenplay / transcribed the dialogue from a book featuring Fabio on the cover. It’s their choice to pull a Julie and Julia, crosscutting between dramatisations of Wallis’ life and the plight of a modern woman, the key difference being that W.E.‘s protagonist Wally Winthrop is fictional. We see notable moments from Wallis’ life, painting her as a victim of circumstance, a woman horribly brutalised by her first husband who then cuckolds her second husband seemingly by accident, before causing the abdication of the King of England despite begging him not to do it as it would ruin their lives.
These overwrought scenes, alarmingly similar to the kind of godawful TV movies made to cash in on royal events like the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton,* are intercut with Wally, a young woman who takes refuge from her empty life by wandering around her former place of employment — Sotheby’s — in the days before an auction of Wallis’ belongings. She is visited by the ghost of Wallis in a Play-It-Again-Sam-stylee, who gives her meaningless advice about self-actualisation that prompts the viewer to wish that Madonna had written a New Age book instead. The bond between the women is strong; Wally is also abused by her vile and uncaring husband, and finds solace in the arms of a kindly security guard, Evgeni, a man whose soulful nature is perfectly summed up by the fact that he keeps a picture of his dead wife in a copy of Rilke’s Letter To A Young Poet on the bookcase near his piano. Seriously.
There’s the germ of an interesting movie there (I mean holy crap, Wally learns from Wallis’ mistakes and goes for a sentimental pauper instead of a chinless toff, and is therefore happier OMG money isn’t everything that’s so deepz), though it would require far more than a bit of an editing trim to make it work at all. Not that Madonna could see her movie objectively any more. It’s hard not to watch W.E. and see it as Madonna’s love letter to herself via Wallis. She’s spoken of how she empathises with Wallis, and the movie oozes with sympathy for the woman, painting her as someone whose joie de vivre and irrepressible nature was such that she was unable to avoid the attentions of powerful men, as well as excusing her notorious interest in the Nazi party by giving her a dismissive line about how she courted Hitler just the once and only because she was just like everyone else, trying to stop him from annexing the entirety of Europe by being really really nice to him. And with one bound Madonna was free! Except not.
This Cele/Bitchy article draws a parallel between Madonna’s inclusion of John Galliano and Leni Reifenstahl’s names in the credits and the decision to airbrush Wallis’ possible Nazi support from the movie, but I think the truth is closer to Madonna just deciding she likes Wallis and felt sorry for her and just couldn’t let her own ego shut up long enough to realise that comparing yourself to someone as dodgy as Wallis just because you like to fame-compare yourself to one of the most notorious and historically significant women of the last century is probably a really really really bad idea, no matter how hard you like to shout that she was just trying to talk Hitler out of being such a dick and hell she wasn’t interested in being Queen anyway. As such, W.E. stands as possibly the most expensive and gaudy example of fanwank ever made; I’m amazed Wallis isn’t revealed to be a Jedi Knight in the final act.
Ah yes, gaudy. Much has been made of the look of the movie; Madonna enlisted A-list names from the fashion and jewelry world to clothe her actors, but it says something about my interest in such matters that I just spent 10 minutes wondering if this sentence’s separation of “fashion” and “jewelry” was redundant because maybe they both belong to the same world. If a movie doesn’t feature costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka or Danilo Donati then I’m not going to notice them. As for jewelry, the only piece I’ve ever been interested in was a Superman logo ring that I wanted to wear on my left ring finger, but my wife Daisyhellcakes rightly vetoed that decision with a quickness. There’s an argument that W.E. is some kind of fairytale saga with bad guys and princesses and lessons learned about true love, but not only is that a bit of a leap, it’s entirely at odds with these glum, anti-magical visuals.
As far as I can see, W.E. is a relentlessly ugly movie, with flat lighting made worse by Madonna’s choice to complicate the visual palette of the movie by adding tons of grainy close-ups of objects and noses and headlines as if the only movie she has ever seen before was Oliver Stone’s JFK. It’s possible that this betrays an ambivalent attitude toward superficial beauty, that Madonna is perfectly aware that the trappings of glamour are nothing compared to the true glory of the world, be it the martyrdom of misunderstood women, or empathetic sisterhood, or some kind of penitent rejection of riches as shown when Wally runs away from her contemptible rich husband to live with honourable peasant Evgeni in his still-pretty-bloody-nice NY “hovel” (which we know is horrible because Madonna has considerately looped in the sound of a dripping tap to hammer it home), but it’s an unconvincing theory, undermined by the participation of those legendary designers. I’ll believe it when I see Madonna slobbing about in one of the fragrant and awesome Tulisa Contostavlos’ pre-glamournisation tracksuits.
The ugly photography helps obscure the actors that struggle to make something of Madonna and Keshishian’s sixth-form dialogue. James D’Arcy and Richard Coyle fare particularly badly, with D’Arcy’s Edward given little to do other than pine for his hyper-confident American lust object while being a little bit decadent; the overall effect is of a creepy aristo with some weak inbred genes losing his decorum in the presence of That American Chutzpah. Coyle is even worse, but then he’s given an impossible acting task to fulfill. His character — the dastardly, abusive husband of poor martyr Wally — is an RKO serial villain with a very nice head of hair and a glass of Scotch glued to his right hand, who brazenly cheats on his saintly wife for no apparent reason other than that Madonna needed Wally to suffer just like her namesake, before finding the love of a good man.
Madonna’s weak facility with actors spreads to her extras; scenes like the auction sequences are littered with scenery-chewing attention-seeking overactors seemingly egged on by the director to be as unsubtle as possible. “Look at them”, she seems to be saying. “They’re awful aren’t they, the rich. They just want to take a piece of me… I mean Wallis, as a souvenir. They don’t understand me… er, Wallis the way I… erm, Wally does.” They clown and yawp and boil away in their seats like hyenas, which Madonna makes sure to emphasise by intercutting the auction footage with shots of Wallis’s friends, off their mash on Benzedrine, rolling around on the floor to the tune of The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant, as Wallis dances in front of them with an African woman from high society (like they used to do in the 30s, I bet) who suddenly materialises behind her. Do you see? Do you see what fame is? Poor Madonna, that prisoner of infamy. Only a truly noble martyr like Wallis could possibly understand what it is to be a massively successful and influential woman, but instead she has to deal with us gawping at her and bidding on her clothes and taking Benzedrine… er… hold on… ::Level 8 Warning — Metaphor Collapse Imminent — Prepare Hydrangea Distraction Protocol Omega::
Does any of this work? Abbie Cornish is better than she should be, though mostly her role requires her to be quiet and stoic and defiant. She’s been busy this past year or so, what with appearing in Bright Star and misfiring “Gurl Powah” debacle Sucker Punch which, oddly enough, shares a few similarities with W.E., though not because W.E. features dragons or ninjas or cosplay, sadly. Cornish is becoming one of the more interesting actresses working today, but Jane Campion’s movie aside, she’s not getting the projects she deserves. She’s often paired up here with Oscar Isaac as Evgeni, who gives yet another terrific performance to rank alongside his work in Nicholas Winding Refn’s retro thriller Drive. He gets the only “funny” lines in the film, but he’s so likeable that I actually laughed with them just out of gratitude that the movie actually recognised a human emotion other than “Melodramatic Mugging”.
Andrea Riseborough’s Wallis is problematic. There are details to her performance that show effort and understanding, an attempt to translate Madonna and Keshishian’s appalling muddle of histrionics, cliche and lumpy exposition into something resembling the behaviour of a human being, but these moments are obscured by a terribly misguided accent that makes her sound like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s impersonation of Katherine Hepburn in The Hudsucker Proxy. Add to that the awful things Madonna makes her do, such as her final moment with Edward, which will go down in history as one of the wrongest things ever committed to film. Many weeks later I’m still not sure if it’s meant to be a joke or not, or whether Matt Groening and the Futurama team should sue over the misuse of this character design.
But I love this movie. Love it. It paralysed me with delighted mirth for almost all of its considerable length, and made me want to drag busloads of people to see it. Please dear Lord give me a chance to book out the Prince Charles and set up a screening just like with Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (another movie where the director’s ego leaps in front of the camera and inadvisably shakes it all about). I dream of a large posse of W.E. fanatics throwing jewelry and Masai spears at the screen and quoting along with Madonna and Keshishian’s Mills-and-Boonian dialogue. We can mock the melodramatic blocking (all hurled martini glasses and weeping / leaping at beds), the bizarre inclusion of Mohamed Al Fayed as a character in order to draw a parallel between the Royal Family’s treatment of Wallis and Diana Spencer (I mean FFS), Wallis’ magical cocktail shaker which she shakes with such vigour that it brings all the boys (and girls) to her yard, the incredible scene where a horrified Edward visits Wales and is greeted by a village full of monosyllabic commoners muttering words of adoring deference from beneath a veil of worthy soot. It’s a bad movie masterpiece, ranking right up there with Showgirls. It will be celebrated and adored for years to come, for all the wrong reasons, but then that’s more than Wallis Simpson got, so Madonna can chalk this up as a success, I suppose.
* An earlier version of this post claimed that Prince William actually married to BBC Breakfast’s one competent host, Kate Silverton. My error — one which gives away my antipathy toward matters of the monarchy — was spotted by Shades of Caruso contributor Masticator, who added, “TV event of the year”. Indeed. ::retires from blogging::