It’s easy to see what might have attracted writer-director Madonna (who has also been known to dabble in music) to the story of twice-divorced American-turned-Duchess-Of-Windsor Wallis Simpson, a woman of modest means who reached rarified heights of fame and infamy and inspired a constitutional crisis when she wooed the then-king of England (he abdicated) through guile, ambition, and fierce, intensely focused sexuality. Madonna undoubtedly saw a lot of herself in Simpson, which might explain W.E.’s unmistakable tilt toward florid hagiography. For the scandal-prone icon behind the camera—who glibly writes off all that talk about her subjects’ Nazi sympathies as slanderous nonsense from a jealous, hateful press and gossipy busybodies—the film might as well be called ME.
Looking and acting like a heavily sedated Charlize Theron, Abbie Cornish stars as the wife of an arrogant, bullying, physically and emotionally abusive doctor who becomes obsessed with the love affair between Simpson (forgettably played by Andrea Riseborough) and the former King Edward VIII when the couple’s belongings are auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1998. W.E. dopily alternates between Cornish’s sexual and emotional awakening at the hands of a poetry-reading, piano-playing security guard (Oscar Isaac) and the courtship between Simpson and her self-sacrificing royal soulmate (James D’Arcy, who has the vaguely inbred quality of many royals). Simpson and Edward fall in love via montage sequences and share a bond rooted in elegant clothing, expensive gifts, expertly made martinis and Edward’s love of Simpson’s dancing: When Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” anachronistically accompanies a Benzedrine-fueled interracial dance freak-out, the song selection feels like a dead-on self-critique.
Calling W.E. a film gives Madonna and her collaborators too much credit. W.E. alternately recalls a perfume commercial that doesn’t know when to end, an elaborate lingerie fashion show, and the longest, most pretentious, most historically minded Red Shoe Diaries episode ever filmed, with Cornish filling in for David Duchovny and his trusty dog as the filter through which viewers experience a hot-blooded, heavy-breathing, super-softcore love affair. It’s a glorified cinematic romance novel with blindingly slick, expensive production values that never begin to mask the fundamental emptiness at its core.