W.E. a film about Wallis Simpson, the twice divorced American woman who stole the heart of King Edward VIII, who in turn abdicated his throne to marry her, is directed by Madonna, born Madonna Louise Ciccone, and who now, of course, is simply known by her first name. A film with such infamous subject matter, directed by a world famous pop star certainly begs the question, "Is it any good?" - especially considering Madonna's previous attempts at being in front of the camera have been mostly disastrous, a case in point being the film Swept Away (2002) in which she played the lead role directed by her then husband Guy Ritchie.
W.E. – the initials stand for "Wallis" and "Edward", an abbreviation the couple used privately between themselves mostly when Edward was giving Wallis extravagantly beautiful jewelry, is a surprising film. Even if one can separate oneself from the famous name behind the camera, it is always difficult to stop from wondering how much of the directorial impetus is the person itself, and whether or not, if the film is decent, the director had a lot of "help".
The film is surprising, therefore, because it is much more than its beautifully made surface of glittering period costumes (Wallis, played by the ethereal and fiercely intelligent Andrea Riseborough is often stunningly dressed in recreated pieces by Schiaparelli, Dior, and Vionnet) and wonderfully detailed and stylish sets, which in this 15 million dollar film, jump from Buckingham Palace to the Bois de Boulogne, Portofino, and a stunning Manhattan apartment (to name just a few).
Not wanting to stick to a conventional bio-pic type structure, Madonna, who co-wrote the script with Alek Keshishian, has decided to juxtapose Wallis' story with that of a modern couple based in 1998 in Manhattan where Wally Winthrop, played by the very talented but under-used Abbie Cornish, lives a seemingly glamorous life with her famous and lauded psychiatrist husband, William, in the aforementioned Manhattan apartment.
Wally, named after Wallis herself, is obsessed with the idea that the story of Simpson and the former King of England is the ultimate love story; the story of a King who gave up his country for the love of a woman. Previously a researcher at Sotheby's, Wally haunts the about to open Sotheby's auction of Wallis and Edward's prized possessions: jewelry, silver engraved cigarette cases, Wallis's elegant gloves etc.
Increasingly isolated by her seemingly perfect husband, who insisted when they got married that she stop working, Wally struggles to understand the reality behind the much speculated about relationship between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Wallis and Edward were given this title after Edward's abdication of the throne, though they were never allowed to return to England).
The story jumps back and forth between Wallis and Wally's lives, introducing each character and their backgrounds, love stories, and doing a credible job of making each woman seem real, yet vulnerable. Slowly, the central question of the film comes to the forefront. Both Wally (and Madonna) seek to know, contrary to most people's inclinations, what, if anything, did Wallis Simpson, the most reviled woman of the 20th century, give up for Edward, her third husband, and a former King of England?
Every director needs a wonderful cast to pull off ambitious stories with questions like these at their heart. Madonna has, with an unerring eye, picked an excellent cast of characters, and while her story is sometimes disjointed and occasionally self-indulgent, the very real and important question, the one that few have bothered to ask, is what carries the film along. No one can yet satisfactorily explain Wallis's allure to Edward, yet, in W.E., Madonna, an oft misunderstood, controversial, and boundary breaking icon herself, has sensitively portrayed, with clearly a great amount of research, a woman who was very much misunderstood through one of the greatest and most mysterious love stories of her century.
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