Co-written and directed by Madonna” is the most obvious signifier of box-office poison this side of “starring Katherine Heigl,” and that's both understandable and somewhat tragic. For one thing, Madonna, for all her talent in the studio and on stage, just isn't very good at decoding big-screen relationships or the way they're meant to develop in the span of two hours or less. The star knows of love's elation and of earth-shattering loss – anyone who says otherwise hasn't given her deeply personal songs like “Oh Father” or “Open Your Heart” a close enough listen. But cinematically, she's almost wholly tone-deaf to the way people express themselves unless the people in question are larger-than-life enough to get away with not revealing too much. That was true of her anomalous portrayal of controversial political figure Eva Peron and it's also true of Madonna's presentation in W.E., her sophomore directorial effort, of controversial political figure Wallis Simpson. Women of abnormal stature facing the harsh flashbulbs with their middle fingers held high, she gets. It's the normals she may never understand.
W.E. isn't a terrible film. In fact, it's quite lovely when concrete information isn't required. Andrea Riseborough plays Simpson, the twice-divorced, chain-smoking American in haute couture who stole the heart of Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor (the man who would be king of England in the lead-up to WWII) and married him, eventually becoming Edward's scapegoat for his abdication of the throne. Draped in longtime Madonna collaborator Arianne Phillips' imaginative costumes and surrounded by Oscar winner Martin Childs' period-specific production design, Riseborough sparkles, as does her paramour Edward, played with pitch-perfect greasiness by James D'Arcy. The Wallis-Edward (W.E.) revisionism plays surprisingly well, if strangely muted. Although they betray no lightness or sexuality in their relationship, the outside pressures on the pair are appropriately monumental, and it's a testament to Riseborough and D'Arcy that the politics never quite dwarf the couple's self-infatuation. Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian have also allowed more talk of W.E.'s Nazi sympathies, and wisely so. (In an early script, their connections were mentioned once, and dismissively, an attitude Madonna parroted in interviews. The issue is given more heft now.)
The dialogue is hopelessly wooden and the couple's lives in exile fall flat, but if Madonna had concentrated solely on this era, the film could have docked sturdily, if not grandly. But in choosing to toggle, Julie & Julia-style, between Wallis Simpson's dizzyingly elegant life and the brain-meltingly dull existence of Wally Winthrop, the morose, abused, neglected wife of a wealthy New York doctor in 1998, Madonna dooms the entire production.
Wally, played by Abbie Cornish, is not only a “normal,” but the least accessible kind: She prowls Sotheby's for no other reason than to delicately trace the preserved artifacts of the Duke and Duchess, cautiously steps into a romance with the auction house's Russian security guard and eventually has imagined conversations with Wallis, whom, I suppose by right of namesake and nothing else, she feels a connection to.
Long passages are devoted to Wally primping sadly in the mirror, trying on sexy lingerie as if it might change her personality and confronting her cheating spouse before heading to Sotheby's yet again. This is not a character that ever needed to exist; she has nothing in common, besides possible infertility, with Wallis Simpson or Prince Edward, and Wally's woes do nothing to illuminate the film's message. She's codependent, hesitant, bored and weak; in other words, nothing like Madonna, Simpson, Peron or even Cornish, whose mother was a full-contact karate champion, for chrissakes. Hear us out, Madge: Next time, go with what you know.