There’s No “I” in “W. E.”…or is there?

b864450f9d2c137d3a5bab8ed1235adcAlright, obviously there’s no “I” in “WE,” but if you flip that “W” you’ve got “ME!” And that right there, folks, is what Madonna’s latest film is all about. God help you if you sit down to watch W.E.–as in Wallis and Edward–expecting a history lesson or a modicum of insight into what has been called by some–or just Madonna–“the greatest romance of the century.” Admittedly, the story of the prince who gave up his throne for an American divorcee is the stuff of fairy tales, and all the rage here in the states where the girls must be weaned off milk and Disney. Appropriately, the less glamorous bits have been overlooked: like the fact that Eddie and Wally were mature in age if not in character. They were not the free-spirited twenty-somethings portrayed in the film by a stunning Andrea Risenborough and charming James D’Arcy. Ed was 41 and Wallis 39. They were also extremely short people. This is not to say that petite, forty-year-olds can’t get their groove on, but they have been consistently misrepresented as young and tall on film and television. But I digress.

If you can divorce yourself from the fact that we’re talking about real people, who were, by all accounts, neither very pleasant nor admirable, not least for their well-documented Nazi appeasing (sorry, Madonna–that’s as much a rumor as F. Scott Fitzgerald being an alcoholic is a “rumor”), you can watch the movie for what it is: a superficial, self-serving, melodrama about “love” at its most basic. I watch it for nothing else beyond the elegant, confident performance of Andrea Risenborough as Wallis, the hotness that is James D’Arcy, the aesthetics, and of course, the score.

Apropos, Abel Korzeniowski‘s score adds the only depth to be found in the film. The merging of classical and modern instruments (electric guitar, harp and piano are all utilized) aptly mirrors the modern and historical timelines, but also provides emotional drive where none would exist without proper investment in these lightly drawn characters.

James D'Arcy as Edward VIII and Andrea Risenborough as Wallis Simpson

James D’Arcy as Edward VIII and Andrea Risenborough as Wallis Simpson

My expectations severely diminished, the film turned out to be halfway decent. It’s one of those simply watchable films you digest like candy, taking little but a superficial pleasure away from the experience. And that’s a problem. Like another film that’s largely eye candy, Sofia Coppola‘s Marie Antoinette, W. E. holds up on re-watch but not examination. Perhaps if Madonna was not so convinced she was creating art, the film might have fared better. As it were, she gets in her own way. A lot. The biggest offender is the superfluous addition of a modern day story-line featuring bored, trophy wife Wally (Abbie Cornish), Wallis’s namesake (no relation). Abbie’s Wally saunters through a dreary, gray-schemed New York, so obsessed with the romance and Wallis herself that she imagines the original woman advising her in times of great stress. Because, you know, when your husband sleeps with everyone but you, Wallis Simpson is your go-to expert.  Cornish’s character soon breaks away from her abusive husband and runs into the arms of a stoic Russian security guard (played with as much seriousness humanly possible by Oscar Isaac). The story only becomes relevant at the end where Cornish finally discovers–surprise–it wasn’t such a perfect union after all. And if she wasn’t screaming it loud enough before, Madge uses Wallis as her mouthpiece to all the celebrity watchers out there: Go get a life! Real deep stuff.

And therein lies my main problem with the film: it teeters on self-indulgence. It’s all well and good, I suppose, to admonish the public for celeb-obsessing, but perhaps our director should take her own advice. For if she is not living vicariously through Wallis,  then she is undoubtedly celebrating two people who were arguably the Kardashians and Hiltons of their time. And if the film is not evidence enough, look no further than the song she recorded for the film: “Masterpiece” seems more like a Taylor Swift diddy with its overly simplistic and melodramatic lyrics. “If you were the Mona Lisa you’d be hanging in the Louvre,” it begins. As the piece swells, Madonna sings, “It seems to me that what you are is a rare and priceless work of art.” I have no idea who the hell she’s talking about because based on her movie neither one could boast of much substance.

Who knows what the real people were like, but underneath all its blind admiration Madonna’s film does them a great disservice. For instance, we are never allowed to judge Wallis and Edward for ourselves. Madonna presents them solely through her lens, where they are blameless and helplessly resigned to their fate, unjustly reaped thanks to a rigid hierarchy. We’re not even given the chance to question the sincerity of their intentions, and in doing so the story loses considerable depth. Never for a second does the film question the integrity of Edward’s character, and this was a man who, for quite a while, cruised carelessly from woman to woman, many of whom were someone else’s wives.  No, W.E.‘s Edward is a man irrevocably in love with a woman Parliament forbids him to marry, and for his choice he is uniformly praised, completely ignoring the possibility that perhaps he relinquished the throne and all its responsibilities a little too easily. While Wallis does mention in one letter that he used her to escape from his prison and then imprisoned her in his, she does so only after writing that he “smothers her with affection;” thus Edward’s choice is never viewed as less than heroic, despite the fact that he all but ruined the life of his younger brother who was neither prepared nor covetous of the throne (Obviously, The King’s Speech made a more lasting impact). Wallis is given even more sickening treatment. Aside from the fact that she cheats on her husband, who accepts it submissively as one can, she’s not really flawed. She’s resigned to two roles: that of charming young socialite and the victim of circumstance. A cruel circumstance it is, too, spending your life in the lap of luxury with a man who has nothing to do all day but lavish affection upon you. Her complaints are understandable, though. Clinginess is rather annoying. Maybe if she and Edward had a hobby, or passion beyond themselves and materialism, things wouldn’t have been so dull. And if that sounds cruel, blame Madonna, because beyond that I have no idea what made these characters tick or what, if any, struggles they endured or complexities they possessed.

Wallis & Edward

Instead of the hugely engaging character study W. E. could have been it becomes instead a thin homage to two people who accomplished very little to be proud of. They lived out the rest of their days leeching off Edward’s younger brother, living as socialites–like they had done beforehand–enjoying all the perks and none of the responsibility.

So, enjoy superficially. There’s a lot to ooohhh and ahhh over here. The actors all give solid performances, and they’re all extremely attractive. The cinematography can at times be quite breathtaking (and at other times quite amateurish, like the pan around the tree during a perfectly cheesy scene where Edward essentially proposes to Wallis), but rather admirably, even a, for whatever reason, gloomy-looking New York City enjoys some finely shot camera work. But the costumes are on a whole other level of effort. Modern day Wally gets the short end of the stick most of the time, but the original Wallis is always on point fashion wise. Enlisting the help of John Galliano (interesting choice in light of his recent Anti-Semetic comments) and Issa, as well as Arianne Philips, the costumes may be the most commendable thing about the film. Wallis parades through scenes in enviable, intricate designs and Risenborough pulls them off rather effortlessly.

***

I doubt I’ll make it in time for the actual day, but provided I’m motivated and well-rested enough, I’ll attempt to do something Christmasy over the next few days.

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