These are the fundamental themes at the center of “W.E.,” an intriguing and ambitious film about the most infamous of historical love affairs: the one that ultimately lead to England’s beloved king renouncing the throne in order to marry the woman he treasured. Much is well known of this notorious pairing – often swept under the rug by a royal family that would rather disregard its very existence – and for the lead character at the center of this dramatization, those details play like notes in a symphony of emotional obsession. She is one of those token upper society maidens deadened by the absence of a loving husband and child (played here with forlorn intensity by Abbie Cornish), but that barely begins to explain her need to idolize the long-gone visage of Wallis Simpson. To her, the allure of the Duchess of Windsor comes down to dual purposes: one as an opportunity to understand the nature of love from an analytical angle, and two as a contrasting point to the life she lives, and the buried passions she hopes to reignite.
For two hours, she can barely fathom anything other than getting to the bottom of the mystery. Often left alone by a husband who is always at work (or always away having affairs, who knows), Wally wanders the displays at Sotheby’s where countless priceless artifacts belonging to the lovers will eventually go up for auction; in them she senses the energies of an affair she longs for with devastating sadness, and they in turn offer the movie links to critical flashbacks of the lovers in moments of courtship, intrigue, passion and devastating sacrifice. There is not much rhyme or reason to the period scenes other than correlations of tone, and when Wally engages in violent confrontations with her alcoholic husband they seem to come as a result of mirroring the ordeals of her study subject, not so much as part of organic storytelling.
For Madonna, the film’s impassioned filmmaker, the subject indicates an added layer of insight that may be more profound for her than general movie audiences. For three long years following her divorce from director Guy Ritchie, she silently studied and memorized every fine detail of the famous romance for the sake of dramatizing it on film, in an endeavor she would write, produce, direct and fund nearly all on her own. Those prospects are indicative of a woman possessed by a need to discover answers at the center of a historical enigma, perhaps as a way to add meaning to her own romantic failures. Was the love between Wallis and Edward really all that different than what we (including her) come to recognize as romantic love in these times? What made it so different? Furthermore, what depth of feeling could inspire such drastic sacrifices in people who so much to lose, especially at the height of a social awareness that would ultimately send them into exile?
Because we are dealing with a woman well known for her sense of control in all things entertainment, these questions do not amount to much in the way of biological narrative undercurrents. The central characters in “W.E.” aren’t so much people as they are vessels of laborious study, and to this story they only serve the purpose of acting out Madonna’s exhausting research like bullet points with dialogue. That the film looks remarkable and has immense atmosphere in terms of its costumes, music and camerawork add just as much confusion to the point as the lack of an emotional investment. The performances are mannered to a fault – particularly Andrea Riseborough, who at least makes a very convincing Wallis Simpson – but they only go to emphasize how cold and calculated the whole approach ultimately is. This movie is so dominated by the neurosis of an intangible discovery that it does none of its own thinking, and for most of these two hours we simply move through the scenes as if on a museum field trip where we aren’t allowed to ask questions or interact with the exhibits.
Many of the isolated scenes work better out of context. The modern conflict involving Wally, her abusive husband and a Sotheby’s security guard she is attracted to (played well by Oscar Isaac) is not written with much intensity or dedication – it plays more like a template for the earlier story arc – but there are two great moments between Cornish and Isaac that suggest, at least, more could be done with it; one involves Evgeni (the Isaac character) trying to lighten Wally up with an after-hours trip into the Sotheby’s exhibit, and the other involves him playing on the piano for her after she seeks refuge in his apartment. Neither moment is used to further any blatant romantic agenda, but that’s perfectly acceptable; the paralysis of loneliness is what directs their chemistry, and the moments are sweet without devolving into formulaic outcomes. Furthermore, many of the scenes between Riseborough and James Darcy (Edward VIII) have their own eccentric allure; because it is never clear between either of them exactly what the source of their indomitable attraction is, they interact with some level of theatrical wonderment, as if eagerly searching for the source of their magnetism while they engage in all the traditions of forbidden lovers.
Madonna’s technical eye shows an enthusiasm for details amidst a chaotic assembly of values, but it is clear she was at least paying attention long before this vision came to pass. The existentialistic undercurrent between Wallis and Wally, for instance, obviously draws broad parallels to the characters at the center of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” a movie she admits to being inspired by (less obvious, perhaps, are the more ambivalent nods to Robert Altman’s “3 Women”). The cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski is jumpy and unsettled, but its knack for finding almost fetishistic obsession in everyday objects – most of which are filmed in agonizing close-up – recalls Hitchcock in the way they are used as story devices. A scene involving Wallis and Edward being washed up in waves on a beach is, obviously, a transparent homage to “From Here to Eternity.” And more direct – but perhaps not as widely publicized – is how the movie’s dual narratives seem to directly echo those of Neil LaBute’s “Possession,” about a pair of literary researchers who study unearthed love letters from Victorian poets and find a commonality with them in the present.
What do all of these aspects reveal beyond her grasp of film technique? Perhaps it is indicative, above all else, that she is more genuine an enthusiast for cinema than any of her counterparts. While her forays into acting seldom panned out into anything of substance in the past (save for four films, including the admirable “Evita”), her dedication as a director is the sort that, even within a lack of mannered inflection, indicates distinct promise. “W.E.” does not end with any cohesive point, but as a study in style and technique it shows a woman enamored with the sensation of classic cinematic values. Perhaps one day that same sense of enthusiasm will yield a more resonating result.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US/UK); 2011; Rated R for some domestic violence, nudity and language; Running Time: 119 Minutes
Abbie Cornish: Wally Winthrop
Andrea Riseborough: Wallis Simpson
James D’Arcy: Edward
Oscar Isaac: Evgeni
Richard Coyle: William Winthrop
Produced by Chris Bongirne, Cleone Clarke, Scott Franklin, Donna Gigliotti, Madonna, Kris Thykier, Colin Vaines, Harvey Weinstein, Nigel Wooll and Sara Zambreno; Directed by Madonna; Written by Madonna and Alek Kesheshian
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