May has not been a good month for new movies in the cinema. Hunger Games and The Avengers (Assemble) hang on while American Pies and Dictators try to grab a little attention (and for me fail). Thank heavens for DVD and blu ray releases. At least that’s what I thought until I saw W.E. this week. If you should have any interest whatsoever in seeing this Madonna presentation of one of the 20th century’s most famous and infamous love stories – that of Edward and Wallis Simpson – let this review be a warning to you. While the story may continue to fascinate, this film version does its best to grab that story by the neck and wring it until it squeals for mercy and then splats it underfoot.
W.E. is supposed to stand for Wallis and Edward. We are presented the story of this famous love affair from the point of view of Wallis. Normally presented as the vulgar, loud and immoral outsider, she is here seen as a woman abroad who is manipulated by her hapless, cloying royal lover, wooing her away from her true love Ernest Simpson. Once Edward has put his commitment to her above his allegiance to the throne, Wallis knows she can never leave him. All well and good, possibly, but W.E. insists on blatantly connecting Wallis’ story to that of Wally (the names are an indication of this film’s subtlety), a present day wealthy American in Europe who is obsessed with Wallis Simpson while contending with her own oppression, in this case violent domestic abuse.
The two stories exist in parallel and at times actually mingle to the extent that Wallis and Wally can touch, share the same space and console one another. It also means that the present can be forced into the past – most extraordinarily with the horrifying anachronistic sight of Wallis Simpson dancing to the Sex Pistols. Don’t get me wrong, this can work – Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette springs to mind as an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable example – but in W.E. this clash most definitely does not. If you want to cringe and hide with embarrassment with every passing scene then W.E. may be for you.
Watching W.E. is an exercise in confusion. Madonna has inflicted on the viewer a mishmash of styles and perspectives. Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Wally (Abby Cornish) are our heroines but neither is likeable. Watching Wally express her independence and inner strength by spending thousands of dollars on a pair of Wallis’ gloves in an auction is so immorally horrible that you’ll be hard pressed to find the slightest piece of sympathy for her plight. Historical events are brushed aside – not least the Nazi sympathies of Wallis and Edward – and the Duke of York (why oh why are you in this Laurence Fox?) is little more than a tragic and weak footnote.
There are minor compensations – the costumes and sets are wonderful – but these stand little chance against the travesties of script, perspective, direction and taste. Madonna unfortunately shows little understanding of the history she’s endeavouring to present. She would have done much better if she had either listened to its voice or left it well alone before bludgeoning it with a mallet.