I was lucky enough to be invited to the very first test screening of the Madonna-directed (and co-written, and produced) W.E. on June 13th at Broadway and 68th here in NYC, and since I was asked to sign no confidentiality agreement, I was tempted to report on it in its then-current state. After all, I found the film uneven but satisfying, stylish and pleasantly sensual if abundantly criticizable. Roger Friedman's grudging report from an insider was not total buzz-shit after all, just perhaps a bit too breathless.
Instead, I was strongly encouraged not to publish until the film was about to be released. Since the most interesting thing to blog about would have been the fact that Madonna was in the room for the focus grouping afterward, I decided to hold off. Unfortunately for Madonna, an anonymous person from that screening posted at DataLounge (with some false info, such as saying there was no discussion group afterward, that Madonna wasn't present, etc.) and the more negative parts became the basis for the first bad press W.E. received—and it got worse from there, with plenty of scorchingly negative reviews coming out of film fests.
Forget all that and read on for my review of the film, based on having seen the final product...
For a woman famous for looking forward, Madonna's made a movie set entirely in the past.
Juxtaposing a storyline set in 1998 about a woman (Abbie Cornish) in a loveless marriage with a history of the perhaps unjustly infamous Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy), W.E., co-written and directed by Madonna, presents and intertwines two familiar stories in a unique way that provides a strong argument for the icon as a passionate neophyte filmmaker. Madonna uses the modern and historical halves of her film to comment on each other, creating a surprisingly old-fashioned "woman's picture," as they called them in the '30s and '40s.
We're all aware that Madonna knows how to make a scene, but here she also demonstrates her ability to create a mise-en-scène—the modern part of the film looks exquisitely edgy, almost dream-like, while the historical part has a crisp beauty enhanced by award-worthy Arianne Phillips costumes. The entire thing is uplifted at every turn by Abel Korzeniowski's out-of-this-world and into-that-world score.
If only Madonna and Alek Keshishian (her Truth or Dare cohort) had produced a tighter script and if only Abbie Cornish had been on her game, W.E. might have been a triumph instead of an interesting but ultimately flawed effort.
The 1998 part of the film focuses on Wally Winthrop, a woman who's given up her job at Sotheby's to marry a controlling, probably adulterous doctor (Richard Coyle). If he's getting his on the side, she's getting hers—but for Wally, it's not about sex. Instead, Wally is entranced by the story of her namesake Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose passionate affair led to Edward''s abdication of the throne more than 60 years before. Obsessed with the auction of their belongings, Wally wanders the preview, daydreaming about the couple and placing herself in Wallis's shoes (and, eventually, in $10,000 worth of her gloves). This attracts the interest of smoldering security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac). He is taken with the curvaceous regular who seems so hungry for...something.
As Wally's marriage disintegrates into violence, the film contrasts that story with the story of the blossoming and forbidden love between W. and E., which reveals Wallis to be cunning and goal-oriented (even though she's already married, she knows she'd be surprisingly good for social acquaintance Edward) yet also appealingly witty, confident and driven by love. It's no wonder miserable Wally would mistakenly see their story as a love affair for the ages and would conveniently overlook the less than ideal aspects of crossing the monarchy and living as rich but hated outcasts. (She seems unaware that, as Madonna's soundtrack contribution "Masterpiece" argues, "honestly, it can't be fun to always be the chosen one.")
In the end, Wally will have to confront why she is possessed of such an interest in the Duchess and the auction of her things, and will then have to decide what to do about it before her own well-being is going, going, gone.
A major shortcoming of W.E. is that Wally's story is clearly weaker than Wallis's, leaving the film lop-sided. The latter is incredibly rich, touching on key events from her first marriage all the way through a scene at the Duke's deathbed, literally providing a "Twist" ending, while the former is numbingly simple and frustratingly flat. Overall, the sleepwalking Cornish struck me as out of her depth, though she is dragged down by a one-dimensional script. Despite being less interestingly written and downright amateurish, Wally's story is at least dressed up with stylish direction that at its best elevates portions of it into a moody, sexy, impressionistic take on a bad marriage, and that at its worst assembles them into music-video emptiness.
Cornish is at her best opposite the far more effective Isaac, who brings the film a regular-guy perspective it needs—it's important that Evgeni is there to gently question Wally on her obsession out of a genuine curiosity as opposed to our only having it questioned spitefully by her husband. The humor Evgeni brings is welcome in a film whose central character, Wally, takes herself way too seriously, even though she ironically doesn't (yet) respect herself. Another plus is that Isaac and Cornish look hot together; I was surprised that there wasn't a more revealing love scene between them—the audience is fairly leaking for it by the time they do hook up.
But the Wallis segment is far more satisfying. Madonna has said she didn't want to do a straight biopic, but the evidence shows she could have pulled off a great one. Is it too late to extend this part of the film to a full 90 minutes and get rid of Wally altogether? Right then. Riseborough is far prettier than the real Wallis Simpson but a close enough double, and she's got the Duchess's mannerisms down pat without venturing into mimicry. It's a pity she got no nominations for anything as she is a huge supporting asset to the movie. D'Arcy struck me as slightly modelly and wooden, but overall appealing. There isn't a lot of depth in showing what exactly made them so attracted to each other, but I loved how their budding affair was captured and suggested. They, too, have good chemistry, not just good clothes and breeding.
The details in the historical part are riveting. One scene showing the couple's omnipresent pugs panting like mad as the couple interacts was a favorite of mine, as was a beautiful rendering of Wallis eyeballing all the tabloid headlines about herself while strolling down the street in London. I was surprised to learn that Wallis had disavowed in no uncertain terms rumors that they were Nazi sympathizers.
Aside from Cornish, if one aspect of the movie does not work for me, it's when Wally and Wallis directly interact during an unfortunately laughable climactic scene that ends with violence. But the film's most arresting take-away—for better or for worse—might be when Wallis sharply turns on Wally and snaps, "Get a life!" What Madonna fan hasn't needed to hear that at some point or another?
Trivia that bugged me were occasional anachronisms (flat-screen monitors and a casually produced, dainty cellphone in 1998?) and a scene showing Wally reading Wallis's priceless letters...in front of a roaring fireplace.
The bottom line: W.E. is an uneven but respectable, diverting first (if you forget about Filth & Wisdom) film that makes an impression, a film of which Madonna can be proud, and that I expect most audiences would find entertaining on some level. I would give it a 2.5/4.