Madonna's W.E. has experienced a tumultuous journey to the big screen. The Queen of Pop had to finance the majority of the picture herself, cast and crew (including Ewan McGregor, Vera Farmiga and producer David Parfitt) came and went, and when the movie finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year the critics were less than kind.
It is really that bad? In truth, yes. Though W.E. is impeccably turned out with exquisite costume design, this is barely enough to disguise its wildly inconsistent tone, chop-change visual style and snoozy performances. Only Andrea Riseborough, who delivers a spirited turn as Wallis Simpson, escapes without embarrassment from Madonna's curious cinematic calamity.
The double-decker story switches from the affair between King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) and the twice-divorced Wallis, to a late-'90s romance involving Abbie Cornish's Wally Winthrop and Sotheby's security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac). These latter scenes frame the period romance, as Wally's growing obsession with her namesake trigger flashbacks to Royal drama in the '30s.
Out of the themes of love, isolation, sacrifice and celebrity emerges a muddled work that seems more like an elaborate therapy session for its director than a coherent film. Madonna, feeling an obvious kinship towards her two heroines, stamps herself all over both of them - Wallis is "hounded" by the press as she's blamed for Edward's abdication and Wally is trapped in a loveless marriage to cold Brit shrink William (Richard Coyle).
This makes W.E. an intensely personal movie for the director, but one that lacks the storytelling imagination to weld together the two narrative threads or present a clear, consistent vision.
Gritty hand-held scenes of domestic violence lie next to swirling, dreamy camerawork. For extended sequences, Cornish is dressed in skimpy underwear trying to attract the attention of her distant husband. With the lingering, seductive shots and moody lighting it all starts to resemble a perfume commercial. At no point does a disembodied voice seductively whisper "Dior", although you half expect that it's coming. All this polish and sheen soon falls away as Madonna lumps in scenes of an emotional Wally injecting hormones into her backside to boost her chances of falling pregnant.
From the appearance of Mohamed Al-Fayed as a salient plot point to a bizarre dance sequence backed The Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant', W.E. will have you scratching your head at every turn. These are just a few baffling choices in a film stuffed full of them.
Cornish's Wally argues that the sacrifice Wallis made has been overlooked, and the history books have unfairly painted Edward as the tragic victim of love. However, when Riseborough's socialite is portrayed throughout much of the film as living a life of opulence it's difficult to have much empathy for her.