Madonna’s second directorial feature (following 2008’s Filth and Wisdom), W.E. (2011) – starring Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy – parallels the infamous royal scandal of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII’s controversial love affair with the story of a modern day namesake who is similarly experiencing a turbulent crisis in her life.
New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Cornish) – named after Simpson (Riseborough) by her mother – becomes increasingly fixated on the American socialite’s life driven by an idealised notion of her romance with Edward VIII. Trapped in a childless marriage with an abusive and neglectful husband, she spends her days at Sotheby’s auction house surrounded by a collection of items from the Windsor estate.
Simpson’s romantic life unfolds through Wally’s escapist day dreams and obsessive research, showing her transform from Edward’s mistress into the King’s subsequent reason for abdication and beyond. Meanwhile, Wally piques the interest of a Russian security guard and the two embark on a tender romance solidified by the tragedy of their marriages.
If well executed, the use of two intertwining timeline can work as storytelling technique, yet with W.E. Madonna creates a polarised, messy tale featuring a superficial depiction of a woman at her most vulnerable. The two worlds collide when Simpson appears to Wally as a spiritual guide, but even though both women are struggling with the double-edged nature of love, their real connection is at best tenuous.
By flickering quickly between Wally’s turmoil and Simpson’s two previous marriages, the film’s introduction is both clumsy and disjointed. If the latter is for the benefit of audience members that are unaware of Simpson before watching, then perhaps a more interesting route would have been to reveal the less familiar aspects of her early life.
Once in full swing, the period pieces have flashes of gripping romance and there is no denying that you start to feel for the couple – the portrayal of Wallis and Edward’s love life is at points genuinely touching and delivered compellingly by the acting talents of Riseborough and D’Arcy. Yet whether factually-grounded or not, you are left wondering if this is a simplified version of the complexities of Wallis’ true character, overwhelmed by an emphasis on her fondness for haute couture and Hollywood glamour – perhaps mirroring the director herself.
Unfortunately for modern society’s Wally, spending your days at Sotheby’s daydreaming doesn’t really provide you with many opportunities to project a personality. When compared to such a dominant figure like Simpson, Winthrop pales into insignificance. She is essentially a superfluous page-turner in a story that has the potential to be a heart-wrenching drama – yet W.E. ultimately remains a watered-down, at times emotionally manipulative, and often morally one-dimensional biopic.