One thing is clear in W.E., Madonna’s mess of an attempt to pin “auteur” onto one of the few unoccupied spaces of her many-sided identity. This fact grabs you in the opening minutes and never lets loose, its grip tightening as cameras bounce from the sterile luxury of Sotheby’s to the gilded opulence of Windsor Castle. It’s the reason why W.E. won’t just be considered a middling romantic drama, and it also explains why Madonna is unlikely to ever make a decent movie.
If W.E. indicates Madonna’s worldview — and it most certainly does, in glaring haute fashion — there’s a single conclusion to follow: For a musician so known for her self-awareness, she doesn’t have a lick of it as a filmmaker. In the most literal sense possible, this is her vanity project.
W.E. follows the stories of two women: the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), who wooed England’s King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) to abdicate his throne for her love, and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a woman who six decades later, struggles to satisfy her emotionally abusive asshole of a husband (Richard Coyle). While fantasizing about Wallis’s romance during a trip to Sotheby’s, where the couple’s most famous possessions are being auctioned off, Wally meets Evgeni (Oscar Issac), a soft-spoken, poetry-reading security guard. He’s everything her husband is not, and their friendship quickly blossoms. It doesn’t take much to figure out what happens next.
Despite its flaws of wealth and superficiality, there are moments when W.E. overachieves. There’s something satisfyingly tender about Wally’s relationship with Wallis, an emotional complement that bridges their stories across time. And while Cornish and the contemporary story she’s in are uninspired at best, Riseborough and D’Arcy spark and smolder against one another in the other, embracing an absurdly spoiled lifestyle in a way turns out the movie’s best moments. Without fail, though, Madonna turns Wallis’s life into hero worship: She glosses over allegations that the couple were Nazi sympathizers, seemingly approves of her affair without reason, and depicts Wallis as a tragic figure, done in by the gossip-ridden world that shattered her private life. Think about that last bit for a minute, and it’s easy to see why Madonna, a tabloid target in her own right, was attracted to this story.
Ultimately, W.E.‘s good moments are too few and far between, weighed down by Madonna’s penchant for filming what would otherwise seem to be the world’s longest perfume commercial. She zooms in, unfocused, on mouths. Scenes are broken up by clunky transition shots of each setting. Everybody looks slightly drugged up and drowsy. At unexpected times, for unexpected reasons, Wallis dances to the anachronistic beats of Sex Pistols and Chubby Checker.
Which is to say, Madonna wants to this to be a love story and an art house flick, but has neither the vision nor the ability to follow through on that idea. Instead, she’s made a wholly incomplete feminine fantasy, rife with storytelling flaws, which nods toward a place it doesn’t belong or deserve. If any other person made W.E., it wouldn’t be worthy of attention. It would fade from memory almost immediately, lamented as a good idea that suffered poor execution. But it wasn’t, therefore it shouldn’t be.
So, what does it tell us about material girl behind the camera? She feels a strong kinship with a woman who was hated by an entire country. Wealth is a constant in her life, so she views the world through a pair of rose-tinted Diors. It’s entirely likely that she hasn’t spent time with an ordinary person in the last two decades — in fact, her entire sense of the ordinary is anything but. W.E. can be a great movie if you relate to any of those sensibilities. Unfortunately, as she always has by design, Madge stands alone.