Watching WE, Madonna’s latest terrible directing effort, it’s difficult to know exactly for what she was striving. An old-fashioned romance? A softhearted take on Wallis Simpson, a woman with whom she clearly identifies as a misunderstood figure? Or is it a tale of a woman imprisoned, but masquerading as if she were free?
It would be nice to report that any of those things were true, but the movie is so hopelessly muddled that it’s impossible to make any claims as to the point of this overbaked melodrama. The film, which tells two stories—one of Simpson and Prince Edward as they meet, fall in love and nearly wreck England; the other about a woman in 1998 named Wally, obsessed with Simpson and trapped in a loveless marriage—is filled with thinly drawn characters, wan performances and a lack of anything resembling genuine human emotion.In other words, it’s a lot like watching one of Madonna’s videos, but without the benefit (if one could call it that) of her music.
Of course, there are some good things. Andrea Riseborough plays Simpson as a smart, sexy, benignly conniving social climber. She terrifically lights up the screen, though the script, by Madonna and her semi-frequent collaborator Alek Keshishian, doesn’t give her much action other than to mix highballs.
Another plus is Abbie Cornish. She’s a beautiful and sometimes captivating performer, but here she’s as boring as whale shit. There’s little for her to do but mope in an expansive Park Avenue apartment. As Wally becomes more and more obsessed with learning the details of Wallis and Edward’s love story (Wally’s mother named her after Simpson, natch), she leaves her for-no-good-reason-other-than-the-story-demands-it jerk of a husband and becomes slowly involved with a Russian security guard at Sotheby’s, where an auction of Simpson’s belongings is taking place. And is the security guard sensitive and a closet intellectual? Of course he is!
If that doesn’t sound like much of a story, that’s because it isn’t. Perhaps that’s why Madonna and Keshishian need two narratives; neither is interesting enough on its own to merit a feature-length film. For that matter, when they’re put together, they’re not enough to sustain a feature-length film. Worse, Riseborough is good enough that we forget there’s a second story at all until the movie jerks us back to 1998; Madonna’s directing style has all the subtlety and nuance of a chainsaw.
At least the production design is appropriately garish or bright-and-cheery or effervescent when it needs to be. Cornish’s apartment looks like a dark, depressing place to live, even if parting the curtains would solve that problem. The rooms where Wallis and Edward mix drinks, smoke cigarettes and blandly while away the days leading up to World War II—and Madonna will have you know it’s just a rumor that Edward was a Nazi sympathizer—come to resemble prisons more and more, eventually landing them in a grand Parisian home in exile. (There are worse places to be shunned, Madonna.)
There’s a germ of a good story here: Edward’s abdication, from his point of view, which is only briefly touched on. As we learned watching The King’s Speech, the English monarchy has several stories worth telling, from Bertie’s stammer (he appears here for camp effect) to Princess Elizabeth’s future role as head of state.
None of that matters to Madonna. It’s cliché to use lyrics from her own songs against her, but Wally and Wallis aren’t the rays of light she wants them to be; they have the depth of material girls. At least the Sex Pistols are featured—however inappropriately—on the soundtrack.