For many people the royal family represents an endless source of fascination. I am not one of those people but that should not be a deterrent to a good movie. I am not particularly interested in the Mafia, unions, country music, pet cemeteries, or Fargo, North Dakota, yet I have seen great movies about all of them. My point is that the subject matter of W.E., which tells the story of Wallis Simpson and her relationship with Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, which led to his abdication from the English throne, is not the problem with W.E. The problem with W.E. is nearly everything that happens between the time it begins and the moment, much, much, so much later, when it ends.
W.E. is a tonal disaster, a movie that’s so unfocused and uneven it dares us to get bored with it. It has a seemingly buoyant story, a romance the movie reminds us time and again is the greatest of the century, but saddles it with another storyline in an attempt to draw a parallel that never develops. It trudges along, substituting bad style for a point of view, obscure dialogue and obtuse plotting for clear storytelling, and clichéd movie tricks for sturdy narrative competence. The film is bombarded with ubiquitous music that operates less like a score and more like a bulwark against silence or reflection. The movie invents a new kind of melodrama though it is not a brainchild but a Frankenstein.
We begin in the 1920s in a little home where a woman is taking a bath. Her soldier husband comes home furious and impatient for his supper. He drags the woman out of the tub by her hair, knocks her about for a little while, and sends her to the floor and kicks her in the stomach, killing the baby she had been carrying. The scene generates an undeniable power, but it is without context, and so W.E. let’s that power dissolve, reducing it to cheap exploitation. The battered woman turns out to be Wallis Warfield, the future Duchess of Windor (Andrea Riseborough). The next time we see her she is remarried to Ernest Simpson (David Harbour) and is about to be introduced to Edward, Prince of Wales (James D’Arcy).
As soon as we’re accustomed to that story we’re given a second one, now in the early 2000s. Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is the envy of Manhattan’s socialites because she’s married to a handsome intellectual psychologist and has a great apartment. Unfortunately, her husband (Richard Coyle) is a snarling, alcoholic cheat, who denies her a job and a baby, and abuses her. He’s a real piece of work, he flirts with women openly at events, doesn’t come home most nights at all, forbids Wally from working, and beats her when she spends “his” money, and says things like “I wish I could have sex without the constant pressure of your need to have a baby,” a phrase that is destined for the saddest embroidered pillow of all time. In misery, Wally is drawn to Sotheby’s, which is having a large auction of items owned by the Duke and Duchess, and Wally becomes obsessed with the story of Wallis, who is in fact her namesake. Wally has lost it; she irresponsibly tries in vitro fertilization without the consent of the man who would presumably raise the child, she has self-harming streaks that border on the suicidal, and she sees the long dead Wallis and has conversations with her. She even tries to return a pair of gloves she bought at the auction to the women. My heart goes out to Cornish who is forced to spend a lot of the movie with the crying shakes. She is unwell, but the movie doesn’t have the decency to treat her seriously; she exists as a funhouse mirror to the Wallis story but sheds no light on it. This second storyline is narrative driftwood. I don’t understand the thought process of relating old stories to modern audiences, as if a 2011 moviegoer can’t connect to a story without a proxy to stand in for them. Wallis is the interesting one here. Give me Julia and cut out Julie, please.
That’s not to say that the Wallis story is told much better. Edward is presented as a sort of wishy-washy cad, someone who loves whatever is in front of him. We are never compelled to believe that we are witnessing a love worth the crown. The real tragedy of W.E. is that the movie says over and over that it’s interested in telling the story from Wallis’ point of view but it fails at that. Sadly, our picture of Wallis is almost entirely defined by the men she’s with at the time. The drawing of the character is bizarre and inconsistent, and Riseborough and the writing channel Mae West, making a sort of cool customer who is far too independent to give up her heart. We therefore become surprised when we’re told that she is irrevocably in love with Edward. The movie reminds us again and again of all that she gave up to be with Edward, but we get only a surface understanding of that. The press hounds her, people gossip and glance at her while she tries to pick up the paper, but it still seems a lot better than being dragged out of the bathtub by your hair and kicked in the stomach.
Wally is able to track down some letters Wallis wrote to Edward, which she inexplicably gains complete unsupervised access to despite not being a historian, collector, or relative. “You have no idea how hard it is to live out the greatest romance of the 20th Century,” one of the letters read. And that, in essence, is the thesis of the Twilight Saga and ultimate downfall of W.E. It’s the “Everyone hates me because I’m popular” mentality. It’s at a teenage level that the movie operates. “Every little girl loves a fairy tale,” Wally explains when asked about her fascination with the story. Yes, little girls have to grow up. At one point, Wallis and Edward have a ridiculous conversation while they chase each other around a tree. “I’ll abdicate to be with you,” he says to her. She stops. “Then I would be the most hated woman in the world,” she gasps then exhales a tiny Bella Swan-esque sigh of delight as the realization dawns upon her. “But then everyone would be talking about me.” I wouldn’t dare attribute this narcissism to the real Wallis Simpson, who I know nothing about and W.E. made sure it remained that way but I couldn’t help but feel like I was supposed to feel sorry for the pretty girl who married a prince.
Just to be clear, I didn’t like this movie, but I’d be remiss not to mention the few good things that director Madonna is able to create. The costumes are marvelous and even though I didn’t like the insistence in dressing the modern Wally in 1930s inspired clothes to further instill a connection that doesn’t exist, it was well executed. Most new filmmakers are saddled with crippling self-consciousness, but I don’t believe there was ever a time when Madonna was self-conscious and here, in her second film, it shows. Most every stylistic choice was wrong, from the insistence on extreme close-ups and strangely framed shots to the use of out-of-period music so make a force point, but each choice was made with authority. In the short sequence with the bizarre rest of the royal family and a nice bit with an elderly Wallis doing the twist for a dying Edward, Madonna makes me think that she could make a black comedy, some sort of macabre creeper. With a little taste, well, a lot of taste, she has the potential to blossom into an interesting film-making voice. Not here though, never here.