By Caryn James | James on Screens February 3, 2012 at 9:00AM
Madonna could not have had a more enthusiastic and welcoming audience for W.E. than I was when I walked into the screening room. I’m fascinated by the inexhaustible Wallis Simpson story. We may never understand the psycho-sexual-political drama that led Edward VIII to abdicate so he could marry his twice-divorced American honey, but we can be pretty sure neither one of them schemed to end up as the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
And for the first hour I couldn’t understand why early critics were so hard on Madonna’s glossily-beautiful dual tale of Wallis and a fictional contemporary woman obsessed with her. Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as the ambitious, stylish Wallis, and Abbie Cornish just fine as Wally, an unhappy New Yorker with an unfaithful, abusive but very rich husband. There is so much back and forth, from Wallis to Wally to Wallis to Wally, that the film seems like a ping-pong game, but we also feel real sympathy for Wallis in her abusive first marriage, and sense why neglected Wally is so fascinated by this earlier woman. Both have a penchant for high glamour and emotionally tough relationships.
And then . . . the film just flies off the rails. Whenever it focuses on Wallis and Edward (James D’Arcy), W.E. is extremely entertaining. (The title comes from their intertwined initials.) The film doesn’t have much to say that’s new, but Madonna and Riseborough capture the story's intensity. We witness Wallis’ calculation at the start of the affair - with her scarlet lipstick, deep growly voice and seductive eyes, Riseborough's Wallis is nothing but calculation - her growing and genuine affection for her Prince, and eventually the lonely, boring trap that their pampered, exiled life in Paris became. He is more inscrutable, as always, but this isn’t his story. The allure of the Wallis Simpson fairy-tale manquee is that of the commoner – and not a conventionally pretty commoner – who was so alluring she sent a whole country into a tailspin.
But as W.E. goes on, it becomes increasingly about sad-sack Wally, one of the least convincing characters you’ll see on screen this year. For starters, she’s beginning fertility treatments without telling her husband (is she planning to steal his sperm?). She goes to the Sotheby’s display of the Duchess of Windsor’s estate and meets the man of her dreams, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) who happens to be a Russian emigre and a talented pianist, who has a day job as a Sotheby’s security guard. That means he lets her roam around and touch all the Wallis stuff on display. You couldn’t make this mess up, and I wonder why Madonna did, along with her co-writer, Alek Keshishian, director of the 1991 Madonna doc, Truth or Dare. Maybe they were dared to come up with the most ludicrous story they could.
What a disappointment, because Riseborough is absolutely gripping, and the film looks divine. You can see Madonna’s dilemma: the Wallis Simpson story has been told so many times, you almost have to come up with a new twist. But this is a twist that turns the royal drama into a royal joke.