W.E. is a new film by Madonna. It isn’t that uncommon (these days it seems almost universal) for popular musicians to try and branch out and explore new avenues of expression/self-marketing. The most common one is acting but once in a while you see something like a clothing line or God help you, a book. But very rare is the artist who tries their hand at directing, and if Madonna’s new directorial effort W./E. is any indicator, we should be very thankful for that.
Oh my, I seem to have let the surprise slip. Yep, W./E. is an unfocused, indulgent, pretentious, boring mess. It’s actually so bad that the very evening after I saw it I started showing the first signs of a cold that would leave me miserable and house-ridden for days. I blame you for this phlegm, Madonna. But we have plenty of time to talk about why it sucks, let’s get some exposition out of the way.
If somehow the title didn’t tip you off (and really, how could an informative title like W./E. Not), the film partly tells the story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII. Back in the 1930s, then-king of England Edward VIII had a very public affair with a married American woman named Wallis Simpson. It was a huge scandal that culminated in Edward abdicating the throne for the woman he loved, his younger brother taking the throne and Edward living the rest of his life in seclusion with Simpson.
It’s the kind of story Americans love because it’s schmaltzy and romantic as all hell, and the British probably don’t mind perpetuating it either since it implies not all of their monarchs are duty-driven bores.
But I said “partly”. See, the story is also about a contemporary woman named Wally (named for Simpson) who is trapped in a failing marriage, desperately trying to get pregnant (because that’s the best thing to do in a failing marriage) and hovering on the edges of an affair with a Russian security guard. Wally has a borderline-unhealthy obsession with Simpson, endlessly haunting the museum where she used to work, which is currently having an exhibition/auction of Simpson/King Edward items. She even hallucinates seeing and carrying on conversations with Simpson, making me seriously doubt her mental stability. It’s probably meant to be charming but just comes off as creepy.
The movie tries to walk the line between contemporary drama and historical docu-drama, and basically fails at both, and that’s my smooth segue into talking about why the movie just sucks.
The characters are almost universally dull. Wally (Abbie Cornish) has no personality that I can see besides really wanting a baby and being really really into the Simpson story. Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) comes off as more capable and in-control, but her whole affair with Edward just never sold me. I never saw any convincing reason for her and Edward to actually be in love, and the romantic chemistry between the two was non-existent. For the whole movie they came across as good friends, but not lovers.
Their male counterparts fared a little better. Wally is courted for most of the movie by Evegni (Oscaar Isaac, who I swear looks like a buff David Krumholtz), a Russian security guard and hands down the most human and likeable character in the whole movie. He actually seems like an interesting and well-rounded character, and his romance with Wally seemed a million times more genuine than that of Simpson and Edward.
Speaking of Eddy (James D’Arcy) he’s at least entertaining, but that’s only because I’m almost certain his performance is about 50% David Bowie. I’m serious, watch the movie and tell me he didn’t come across as kinda Bowie-ish. Or is it Bowie-esuqe?
But the largely boring characters are only part of the reason why this movie fails. The lion’s share of the blame can be heaped at the director’s feet. For one thing, I don’t think this is really a movie. It’s a series of music videos strung together with plot. It’s like The King’s Speech meets Moonwalker.
Almost every five minutes the diegetic sound (voices, sound fx, etc) will drop out so the characters can dance or something in slo-motion to some music. And some of the choices are really weird. I swear I’m not making this up, but there’s a scene where Wallis Simpson dances the Charlston to the Sex Pistols. It’s like being in some weird fever-dream.
Or even worse, the diegetic audio will stay and the actors will literally have to battle to be heard over the swelling soundtrack. This movie has no background music, it has foreground music.
On top of that, the movie just lacks focus. Scenes will go on too long or will lack any kind of relevance. The Wallis/Edward side of the story keeps jumping ahead in time and as I said before it makes it impossible to get any real grasp on the mechanics of their relationship. You never actually SEE them falling in love, at one point we just skip from them being friends to their having an affair. This is a love story for God’s sake, show me some actual love!
What this really feels like is a director with almost no grasp of how to properly tell a story and limited experience let loose with a full toy box and allowed to go nuts. Maybe if someone actually had the gall to reign Madonna in and try and show her how to convey complex emotions and tell a cohesive narrative effectively, this train wreck could have been avoided.
Look, Madonna, I get that you used to be some kind of big deal to music, and if you wanna try directing a movie based on a story you love, more power to you. But you need to connect the dots with something other than your iTunes playlist.
If you’re still unsure, give the trailer a look: