Little substance from Material Girl
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012
It seems like yesterday that "The King's Speech" and its protagonist, Colin Firth's stammering King George VI, were taking movie fans by storm, wending their way to Oscars all around for an affectionate portrait of sweetly flawed British royals.
What a difference a year makes. "W.E.," which also arrives by way of the Oscar-savvy Weinstein Company, portrays George and his wife, Elizabeth, not as heroes but as henpecked and scheming, respectively. "W.E." saves its sympathy for George's brother, King Edward VIII, who famously abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Wallis and Edward are the heroes and title characters of "W.E.," which has been nominated for just one Academy Award: costume design. That turns out to be entirely appropriate for a movie that's less about people than the fetishistic obsession with style.
In the case of Wallis - portrayed in "W.E." by a whippet-thin, flawlessly lockjawed Andrea Riseborough - that preoccupation is worn lightly, a matter of taste and self-expression and the ability to pass off shrewd calculation as utterly effortless.
For Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), the 20th-century Manhattanite whose story toggles back and forth with Wallis's, notions of beauty, function and provenance seem barely to matter for their own sake. A former researcher at Sotheby's, now married to a hugely successful and brutishly abusive Park Avenue psychiatrist, she has become obsessed with Wallis, not as a clothes horse or a provocative historical figure (What does one wear when dining with Hitler?), but as the embodiment both of feminist emancipation and classically feminine sacrifice.
Wallis, "W.E." disingenuously insists, was the woman who dared to disarm the powerful - it was her bold frankness that so beguiled the prince - but whose role in the "romance of the century" came at its own personal price.
Conceived and directed by Madonna, "W.E." is a gorgeous mess. Both frantic and inert, the strained effort to wring heroic meaning from two un-heroic characters proves a task too daunting for even Madonna's flinty determination. Both Riseborough and James D'Arcy are superb in those roles, but the audience would barely know it, between the big, blurry close-ups and whiplash editing (here, Madonna betrays her own insecurity: A more confident filmmaker would let the scenes play).
Far more problematic is the present-day story line, in which Cornish lumbers, dagger-heeled and dead-eyed, through a plot that seems engineered to lend Wallis and Edward's story political weight it can't support. Wally drifts between her empty, enormous apartment, giving herself IVF injections on the sly and slinking off to Sotheby's, where Wallis's jewelry and home furnishings are being auctioned off. She befriends a security guard with the soul of a poet (Oscar Isaac, last seen playing a volatile ex-con in "Drive"), dreamily fondles the linens and teacups and . . . what? Thinks of England? Despite Madonna's and co-screenwriter Alex Keshishian's strenuous attempts to forge a "Julie and Julia"-esque psychic connection, Wallis's role in Wally's life is never entirely clear.
Still, there are those clothes, in all of their luxe, handcrafted, sensuously draped perfection, as lambent in reflected privilege as the cruciform charms that Edward heaps on Wallis while he's courting her.
Those bejeweled crosses recall Madonna's own iconographic signatures that have morphed so dramatically over a 30-year career devoted to celebrating a woman's will to power. But curiously, Madonna elides her heroine's own ambition and ruthless self-deception, instead portraying her as the guileless victim of her own Baltimore-bred charms. Between the scrums of paparazzi, the entourages and the fabulous stuff, "W.E." doesn't tell a story as much as it seeks to impose mythic import on the life of the ultimate material girl.
It doesn't scan, mostly because Madonna isn't a very good filmmaker - just as she isn't a great singer, an ingenious songwriter or, at 53, the best dancer. The few wobbly moments of her halftime performance at this year's Super Bowl proved all that. But the show's scale, verve and canny sense of spectacle also proved the most enduring truth when it comes to Madonna: Her finest medium has always been herself.
Contains profanity and domestic abuse.