W.E. | Film review | Xan Brooks

Madonna's jaw-dropping take on the story of Wallis Simpson is a primped and simpering folly, preening and fatally mishandled

Whatever the crimes committed by Wallis Simpson – marrying a king, sparking a constitutional crisis, fraternising with Nazis – it's doubtful that she deserves the treatment meted out to her in W.E., Madonna's jaw-dropping take on "the 20th-century's greatest royal love story". The woman is defiled, humiliated, made to look like a joke. The fact that W.E. comes couched in the guise of a fawning, servile snow-job only makes the punishment feel all the more cruel.

Or could it be that Madonna is in deadly earnest here? If so, her film is more risible than we had any right to expect; a primped and simpering folly, the turkey that dreamed it was a peacock. Andrea Riseborough stars as Wallis, the perky American social climber who meets Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) in London, where she is drawn like a magnet to his pursed lips and peevish air.

Yet Madonna has also taken the decision to run Wallis's story in tandem with the story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), a trophy wife in 1990s New York, who totters in and out of the drama like a doped pony. Wally, it transpires, was named after Wallis and is obsessed by the woman to a degree that struck me as deeply worrying, but which Madonna presents as evidence of impeccable good taste.

From time to time, the ghost of Wallis even pays Wally a call to dispense beauty tips or comfort her when she's lying injured on the bathroom floor. "I'm here," coos Wallis. "I'll always be here." And seldom has a promise sounded more like a threat.

Madonna wants us to see these two as spiritual twins, in that they are both dazzled by expensive trinkets and searching desperately for love. We know instantly that Wallis's first husband is a wrong 'un because he drags her from the bath and beats her, and we are invited to take a similar view of Wally's spouse when he starts claiming that Wallis and Edward were Nazi-sympathisers, which is patently absurd. "They might have been naive," Wally scolds him. "That doesn't mean that they were Nazis."

What an extraordinarily silly, preening, fatally mishandled film this is. It may even surpass 2008's Filth and Wisdom, Madonna's calamitous first outing as a film-maker. Her direction is so all over the shop that it barely qualifies as direction at all.

W.E. gives us slo-mo and jump cuts and a crawling crane shot up a tree in Balmoral, but they are all just tricks without a purpose. For her big directoral flourish, Madonna has Wallis bound on stage to dance with a Masai tribesman while Pretty Vacant blares on the soundtrack. But why? What point is she making? That social-climbing Wallis-Simpson was the world's first punk-rocker? That – see! – a genuine Nazi-sympathiser would never dream of dancing with an African? Who can say? My guess is that she could have had Wallis dressed as a clown, bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower to the strains of The Birdy Song and it would have served her story just as well. Xan Brooks


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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