This week I watched a film written and directed by Madonna and released in 2011 to critics who pronounced it dead on arrival. But you know me. I wanted to know why.
In “W.E.” Madonna’s script (on which she was aided by Alek Keshishian, her director for “Truth or Dare”) she attempts to draw parallels between the famed Wallis Simpson, who was responsible for Edward VIII abdicating his throne, and a young New Yorker named Wally, who is obsessed with the original.
Young Wally is lonely and trapped in an unhappy marriage with an unfaithful husband, a psychiatrist who uses his “I have to return to the hospital” excuse far too often. It’s 1998 and Wally, a former Sotheby employee, finds herself spending far too many hours there, lingering over the upcoming Windsor auction exhibit (a very real event). So much so that Wallis begins to talk to her. And the security director, a handsome Russian emigre, begins to pay attention.
Wally believed Edward’s and Wallis’ romance must have been a love affair for the ages. But as she examines items up for auction, Wallis speaks to her. And as vignettes in their life unfold (with help from period news footage), Wally learns that all was not well in paradise. Wallis put up some resistance to marrying Edward, because she feared being ostracized (and they were — in England). She also feared losing her independence. And she did. Scenes of them fleeing the press look like those of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.
Edward was her third husband. The first was an American officer who beat her, the second was just boring. According to Madonna’s screenplay, for which she claimed to have done two years research, Wallis wasn’t that happy after their marriage. At first they enjoyed being feted everywhere they went. But being entertained by the Nazis in Berlin and Madrid didn’t sit well with anyone. Edward was lectured. She became bored. She loved Edward completely, but their world became a prison inhabited by them and a few close friends.
Madonna cast English actors Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as Wallis and Edward, with more success from Riseborough. She isn’t well-known to Americans, though she played Tom Cruise’s housemate in 2013’s “Oblivion.” D’Arcy has been in some of the Marvel films and played Col. Winnant in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Riseborough captures that whiff of a social climber in early Wallis. I loved Madonna’s remark about her subject, that she was inspired to do the film by the controversial lives of Edward and Simpson. She said that if she brought them up at a social gathering, “It’s like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the room. Everyone erupts into an argument...” I’m presuming this applied to rooms in England.
Abbie Cornish plays Wally, the young woman who perhaps wants to see something of herself in Wallis. Oscar Isaac, who’s been very busy the last few years, plays Evgeni, whose concern for this unhappy young woman gives him the courage to ask her out.
Madonna really wanted to make this film. I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps Wallis Simpson was a bit of a crush for her, as she decamped to London after marrying English film director Guy Ritchie. Too bad there wasn’t a Prince Harry for Madonna.