Our rating: 2 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
There are two sides to every story, and in this carefully crafted biopic merged with fiction, Madonna tries to tell us the story of Wallis Simpson, the commoner a monarch left his kingdom to marry. Though maligned by the critics, W.E. is an exquisite film.
Young Wally (Abbie Cornish) has inherited more from Wallis Simpson than her name. Her mother and grandmother were obsessed with the American divorcee, and so is Wally. Once an employee at a world-renowned auction house, now an upper society housewife with too much time on her hands, she is in a marriage of convenience for security and longs for a romance like Wallis had. Her psychologist husband (Richard Coyle) spends most of his time at work... or with his cell phone off, leaving her to pace her beautiful upper Manhattan apartment and dream.
In the late 1930's, Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) is married to a good-natured man after a disastrous first marriage that ended in abuse and left her unable to bear children. Though suffering from a bad cold, she insists on being present at a party in which His Royal Majesty the Prince of Wales, "David" (James D'Arcy) to his family and friends, is in attendance. There are immediate sparks between them, but for a time Wallis merely "looks after him" for one of her friends. But when that friendship turns into something more, their love affair threatens to tear a nation apart on the eve of war.
Critics have slammed this film for everything from its directorial style to the script. I happen to think they are all wrong. For a debut film by a first-time director, this is a masterpiece. Madonna knows movement and how to use it. She knows how to tell a story through female protagonists. She knows how to tug on our heartstrings and make a woman overshadowed by scandal and rumors a likable figure. That is what she did for me: she took a scandalous, notorious woman and made me like her. Not just a little bit, but a lot. Films from this era take a position on the scandal, either in favor of it or against it. This one doesn't. It presents the relationship for what it was, a unique and at times absurd affair. Yes, it is somewhat soft on their fondness for socializing and does its best to gloss over their Nazi empathies, but never did it feel overly defensive or contrived. In the end, it is a film about normal people who just happen to have titles attached to their names.
The past setting is exquisite, with beautifully crafted costumes, jewelry, and a perfect cast that expands to include Laurence Fox, Natalie Dormer, and Oscar Isaac. If there is one fault with the script, it is that most of it revolves around present time and Wally, while her story is less interesting than that of Wallis. I raised my brow a bit to find out that the past and present characters would interact, but it works out well, with their lives intersecting and paralleling one another from time to time. I would have liked a bit more with Wallis and David, but there is enough. The musical score is also beautiful, ranging from passionate piano pieces to more modern pop songs. But rather than being jarring, they give us a sense of excitement and fun.
No movie is perfect and for Christian audiences, this one has some problems. Much of it relies on the fact that this movie relies on an adulterous affair for its obsession, and gradually eases into another affair as Wally's marriage disintegrates. Surprisingly, most of it is handled discreetly, but there are still some tense and sensual moments. The most we see from Wallis and David are a few kisses. In the modern day, Wally tries to entice her husband into sex, hoping to get pregnant. They kiss and roll around on the bed (she in her underwear) until they have an argument and stop. Later, a man takes her into his home and respectfully keeps his distance, but they do wind up passionately kissing on the floor (it fades out). She spends numerous scenes in lingerie. David offers to spice up a party and entices Wallis to tuck up her skirt and dance, which she does (lots of leg). A security guard sees a naked backside on camera, as a man flourishes his kilt and sits down at a piano.
Five f-words (four in rapid succession, along with a use of a derogatory female term), one abuse of Jesus' name, and a couple uses of s**t make up the dialogue. But the most painful aspect involves domestic abuse. In the first eight minutes of film, we glimpse Wallis' first marriage to an abusive man. He drags her out of the bathtub, punches her to the ground, and kicks her. The camera catches glimpses of upper and side nudity. The result is a miscarriage, as blood creeps across the bathroom floor. Later, the scene is repeated (clothed) with Wally, whose husband hits her repeatedly and kicks her on the floor. Since so much of the movie has restraint and good taste, it seems an odd choice to include nudity at the start. However, if you do want to see it, and avoid that scene entirely, skipping to the next scene after Wallis turns on the tub misses nothing except the nudity and abuse.
Either this is a movie you are going to love, or hate. Much like public opinion on the romance itself, there is no middle ground. It glosses over some of the unsavory aspects of this couple (such as David's meanness to his brother Bertie) but doesn't hesitate to show us the brutal truth about everything Wallis went through. David may have given up his throne to be with her... but she gave up everything else.