Venice '11 Review: Madonna's 'W.E.' Is A Royal Disaster

by Oliver Lyttelton
September 1, 2011 3:13 AM
27 Comments
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Just as news of an actor excitedly announcing that they've got a definitely-not-a-vanity-project album on the way is generally greeted with a reaction somewhere between mockery and outright terror, news of a musician moving into the movies is rarely a good thing. But all in all, pop megastar Madonna's made a better attempt than most.

Sure, there have been disasters, films like "Shanghai Surprise" and "Body of Evidence" and "Swept Away," but there have also been hits and well-received pictures, like "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "Evita." But more than just the occasional acting gig, she wants to direct. Things didn't turn out so well first time out, with 2008's "Filth and Wisdom", but it hasn't put her off, and things seem to bode better for her second time out. The royal drama "W.E." has been picked up by The Weinstein Company, positioned for the Oscar season, and picked for an out-of-competition slot at Venice, where we caught the first screening this morning. Any improvement, then?


The film follows two parallel plots. The first centers on Wally (Abbie Cornish), a recently married New Yorker, desperate for a child and fascinated by Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII gave up the English throne. A collection of property of the Duke and Duchess is up for auction at Sotheby's, and, as her marriage implodes, she finds herself returning to the exhibit, attracting the attentions of a security guard (Oscar Isaac). That's all mixed in with the second strand: fragments from the life of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough), from her miscarriage, induced by her abusive first husband, to old age with her royal love (James D'Arcy).

It's clear that Madonna identifies with Wallis, and in particular her hounding by the press, with constantly flashing cameras becoming a recurring motif in the film. It's a self-financed passion project, years in the making, and she sets out, like Cornish's character in the later stages of the film, to reclaim her reputation, and to show that she sacrificed just as much for love as 'David' (the King's given name) did. And given the two-dimensional version of the characters displayed in "The King's Speech" (as played by Eve Best and Guy Pearce), showing the other side of the story isn't a bad aim. But if you set out to write and direct a film with such an ambitions, it helps if you have some capacity for writing and directing films, and on this evidence, the pop legend still doesn't have either.

The script is the first problem. Co-written with Alek Keshishian, it's laden with clichés and clunky exposition from the off, with some moments drawing laughs from the Venice audience. More fatally, the structure works against what's trying to be achieved. There aren't really any similarities between the characters in the parallel stories, so the one isn't enlightened or embellished by the other. Furthermore, by telling Wallis' story in a somewhat non-linear fashion, jumping around from place to place, it becomes glacially paced and uninvolving, particularly as Madonna seems to steer things away from any actual drama -- we never see the moment that Wallis and David first get together, for instance.

There's little insight into Wallis or her husband, either; the director isn't interested in making her film anything but a hagiography, dismissing briefly and unconvincingly the troubling accusations of Nazi sympathies shared by the couple. And the script can't even maintain an internal logic -- Wally's husband (Richard Coyle) is referred to as an emergency room doctor in one scene, and as "a shrink" in another.

Of course, some of these problems could have been ironed out by the right director, but it seems that Madonna has, if anything, gotten worse since "Filth and Wisdom." It's not that she has a bad eye -- the film's handsomely shot by "The Lives of Others" DP Hagan Bodanski, in the same way that a perfume commercial is handsomely shot -- it's more that her visual approach could best be described as "throw it at the wall and see what sticks." The camera barely sits still, stock changes from shot to shot, people walk down corridors in slow motion, all without rhyme or reason. And she can't really block a scene either, which is most notable during a crucial declaration of love staged with David chasing Wallis around a tree. It doesn't help that the editing is virtually nonsensical, and never misses an opportunity for a half-assed match cut; the cutter Danny Tull doesn't have many credits beyond a 2006 documentary about, you guessed it, Madonna, and it shows.

Ms. Ciccone does have one strength, at least, and that's casting (although it's worth noting that Vera Farmiga and Ewan McGregor bailed not long before filming, the smartest decision either has made in a while). D'Arcy is the weakest of the leads, bland and pretty, but not leaving much of an impression otherwise. Cornish does about as well as could be expected, considering her character 1) appears to be permanently heavily sedated, 2) spends most of her time on screen window shopping, and 3) is totally unbelievable, a woman with a storyline from a Victorian costume drama rather than 1998 New York, never displaying a hint of backbone or inner life.

Isaac, however, is a pleasure, as he often is, even in the worst projects (he also gave the best performance in "Sucker Punch"). His character gets the best lines, bringing some much needed wit to the proceedings, he seems ten times smarter than anyone else on screen, and makes a genuinely swoonsome romantic lead. Riseborough is good, as always, and should be the only person who comes out smelling of roses: playing Wallis as a sort of Dorothy Parker-type, she's infinitely better than the material. Of which she doesn't get enough -- by the end, she's reduced to looking a bit miserable in empty rooms, the script not really giving her anything to work with.

Oddly, for a pop megastar, the use of music is horrible (although it's worth noting that Abel Korzeniowski's score is alright, though not a patch on his breakthrough a few years back on "A Single Man"). The film's two worst scenes are both driven by pop songs, the first a baffling Benzedrine-induced freakout in a screening room, Wallis dancing to The Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant," the latter seeing Riseborough, in old age make-up that makes her look like Gary Oldman in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" doing the twist. Both are guaranteed to leave jaws dropping.

All in all, we can only imagine that the Weinsteins bought the film sight unseen, or that they're hoping to make a fast buck off the back of "The King's Speech," because despite a couple of solid performances, the film can't be redeemed. We've never looked forward to Madonna going back on tour more, if only because it means that we'll know, for certain, that she won't be using that time to direct another movie. [F]

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More: Films, Review, W.E., Venice

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27 Comments

  • Dave | January 1, 2012 11:09 AMReply

    Troubling accusations of Nazi sympathies ? How about concrete evidence of active treason in wartime. Anyone else would have been shot. Madonna could never have been accused of having particular social insight, but how could she conceivably manage a biography of this couple without working out what they were ? Either she does know and considers complicity in Nazism little more than a faux pas or she did a staggeringly bad job of her research. Evil B**** or ninny, you choose. See: www.sbs.com.au/documentary/program/edwardviiithenaziking

  • alex | September 19, 2011 1:40 AMReply

    Madonna is amazing. So is this movie. Why cant the critics accept the truth. Now leave it alone and let the audience / madonna fans decide.

  • brandi | September 13, 2011 11:25 AMReply

    And Oliver obviously saw the movie. Critics usually see the movies before us regular folks.

  • brandi | September 13, 2011 11:22 AMReply

    Oh please. No one is hating (can we please retire that word?) on Madonna. If one does not want to be criticize don't make a movie.

  • Pete | September 13, 2011 5:31 AMReply

    Having seen W.E. last night in Toronto, I have to agree with everything this reviewer writes. It was sumptuous to look at, but a borderline ordeal to sit through otherwise. It had a few good moments, but mostly it was uninvolving and empty.

  • Kitty | September 10, 2011 10:47 AMReply

    I have not read ONE good review of W.E. Madonna should stop wasting money and raise her kidnapped children. All her films are flops.

  • GiannisDrakos | September 10, 2011 10:41 AMReply

    "So if there is something to say about Madonna is: I do think it takes a lot of courage to do something like this. Madonna is brave and she’s always looking for something new and different to do, she reinvents herself."

    Blah, blah, blah....is there a tape loop lodged in your head on repeat? Madonna is through. She is a failure. 15 film of hr's have all FAILED. This is just a more expensive failure. She is a hater and no one cares. Toronto turkey this week!

  • andrea | September 5, 2011 12:11 PMReply

    I just saw few parts of the movie W.E and thought it was so beautiful. Very surprised. Really ! when it comes out people will be shocked that Madonna has created such a amazing movie !

  • Mauricio | September 3, 2011 2:09 AMReply

    The movie doesn't talk about Madonna, it doesn't include any Madonna music, there's no references to the singer at all. Why can people not be objective anymore!? This is not about pointing Madonna's talent or non-talent. But about the movie! And we haven't seen the movie, have we? Anyone who says a movie is bad before even seeing the OFFICIAL trailer, is someone who should NEVER criticize movies anymore. Because movies are not only about what we see, but about how characters feel; about how people lived/will live in the moment of the whole plot; about how society thinks and what society wants by the time the movie is released; about the true message it tries to send; about pushing the audience's buttons... There's so much more to movies than only the brief synopsis we read at the back of the movie box, or online at the movie theatre's websites. And in order to talk either badly or goodly about that, YOU SHOULD WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST!! So be objective and wait for the movie. Then we'll be able to say if it was a "Royal Disaster" or a Royal Delightment.
    It's so disappointing how media can't see the real point of things these days. They all go for gossip and pay attention to nothing but unworthy 'artists' that pretend to be groundbreaking people, when they are not. Example is Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and the rest of the gang. People don't seem to care about real talent these days, only caring about worthless gossip to fill up the cover of Seventeen-like magazines.
    So if there is something to say about Madonna is: I do think it takes a lot of courage to do something like this. Madonna is brave and she's always looking for something new and different to do, she reinvents herself. Unlike others, such as Gaga, who dedicates her life only to dress with wicked clothing that has, by the way, bored everyone already; and to sing while trying to be everyone else but herself or a new type of artist. So sad. Don't you agree?

  • Oscar | September 2, 2011 5:49 AMReply

    See the movie, then judge.. that's all i have to say..

  • robert | September 2, 2011 3:46 AMReply

    Uh, there are shrinks who work in emergency rooms. Duh.

  • Legolas2186 | September 1, 2011 8:40 AMReply

    Chloe: You sound as if you are in dire emotional turmoil over the fact that people disagree with you. Don't take this all so seriously it is just a film.

  • Andy | September 1, 2011 8:34 AMReply

    After reading so many opnions below all I have to say, Madonna is simply superb ! Very taleneted lady. The movie looks amazing. She is no ordinary star she is a SUPERSTAR. Loved and adored by millions of people around the world. GOD BLESS MADONNA ! keep up the good work !

  • Chloe Canacalon | September 1, 2011 7:54 AMReply

    @ Concertina, darling, you clearly set out to hate on Madonna for no reason.

    Your comment is the evidence that your goal is to "dis" Madonna in any way you can, rather than focusing on W.E - which you obviously haven't seen.

    "Making a film about Wallis and friends and not delving into their anti-Semitism is like making a film about Joseph McCarthy and leaving out the HUAC hearings" - that is the most ignorant thing I have read.

    With this statement, you not only show that you have no idea of what the movie's plot is about, you also imply that a person is an one-dimensional being.

    You just made Madonna's point at the press conference in Venice earlier today about Wallis: she said fame often reduces celebrities "to a sound bite".

    Do you really think that King Edward VIII would have abdicated his throne just to be with a simple one dimensional Nazi lover? It is really simplistic of you to assume that Wallis Simpson had nothing to offer to a king besides her "anti-Semitic" inclinations.

    Maybe you are just too cynical, but let me tell you: a king would not have given up such a powerful position (his throne) for a woman who had nothing else to offer him.

    If you were a little smarter, you would have reached the same conclusion through a different rationale: he had abdicated his throne, he was not in "politics" anymore. So Simpson's political inclinations (as you say "antisemitism") would not matter for him.

    So logically, there was something else about Wallis Simpson. And that is what this film focuses on. Whether she was a Nazi or not, whether she liked chocolate or not, whether she liked milk with her coffee or not - there was something special about her to the point that a king abdicated his throne (his political position) to be with her.

    And learn one thing: it is possible to make a movie about well-known names and icons and not focus on cliches or preconceived notions and expectations. For instance: making a film on Osama Bin Laden doesn't necessarily have to be about September 11th. One can focus on his beliefs and the path that took him to religious and political extremism, instead of focusing on the terrorrist attacks per se.

    Human beings are not one-dimensional. Stop being so simplistic. With a little effort, you may discover that the world is not just black and white, hon.

    And just in case you try to refute my accusation that you are here to hate on Madonna more than anything else, remember what you said about her on a page that was supposed to talk about her latest film:

    "Madonna has been living of pity for her lack of talent for far too long."

    It is what they say: "Haters are going to hate". But that doesn't change the fact that I pity people like you. Did you forget to take your meds today?

  • Dave | January 1, 2012 11:22 AM

    Umm ... What ? Do you know what a Nazi is, 0r have any idea how complicit in the nazi agenda for Britain that these creeps were ? I have never seen a more demented bit of twisted logic than your post. If you make a film about Bin Ladin that flippantly denies terrorist involvement and just talks about how he liked cats you are not presenting the guy as a multi dimensional human being at all you are acting as a propagandist. Stick to commenting on E! news trivia, or whatever it is that you usually concern yourself with.

  • Roxette | September 1, 2011 7:38 AMReply

    Not surprised by this article. IndieWire has always been closed to all possibility that W.E. would be a beautifully made film.

  • Concertina | September 1, 2011 6:31 AMReply

    Chloe: Making a film about Wallis and friends and not delving into their anti-Semitism is like making a film about Joseph McCarthy and leaving out the HUAC hearings.

    "no obligations to be factually correct. It is not political either"

    That personifies Madonna's entire career coddling by the
    media in a nutshell. Refreshing to see the numerous reviewers like Mr. Lyttelton who are not towing the line and simply telling the truth as they see it. Madonna has been living of pity for her lack of talent for far too long. When her own fans take off the blinders and begin holding her to higher standards she may actually become a real artist.

  • Chloe Canacalon | September 1, 2011 6:19 AMReply

    All the reviews I've read about the movie have one thing in common:

    They all state how great the film's cinematography is.

    When one has every single review talking about "how great the cinematography is"; "how beautiful the images are"; "how well detailed were the sets" it is by far a "Royal disaster".

    In fact, when a reviewer misses this point and completely ignores what everyone else is talking about, it is more likely the reviewer doesn't know a thing of what he's talking about.

    And, mmm, @London Fields, the film is not a documentary. It has no obligations to be factually correct. It is not political either. It is a love story. It focuses on the search for the kind of love that forces a king to abdicate his throne for a divorced foreign woman. Whatever their flaws are is not the point the film tries to make.

  • London Fields | September 1, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    Once again Madonna fans can't understand why certain critics who are brave enough to sign their own death warrant at the mercy of Harvey Weinstein's lawyers ARE TELLING THE TRUTH. Directors far more talented than Madonna have films that fail -that's movie making for you. Once I read that any hint of anti-Semitism was erased because madonna is a chicken shit, I lost interest. One can see from this review why the film stinks and why it will fail. Sex Pistols? hahahaha! Madonna know about as much about the spirit of Punk rock as Pat Boone knows about being Islamic.

  • Sadi | September 1, 2011 5:25 AMReply

    From the pics the movie looks like a painting. Cant wait to see it. Madonna has done it again ! A beautiful movie.

  • alex | September 1, 2011 5:20 AMReply

    Once again, we are not giving the movie or madonna a chance here. The film is not even out yet and everyone is labeling it as bad, terrible. We should watch it first then make a decision. And if the movie is bad, then say its a bad movie. Why do we have to mention she should not direct, she is terrible. No Madonna is a fantasitic ! She knows it and the entire universe. The most successful, amazing, trendsetting women. She truly is an artist. These are the reason she has sold more than 300 mill albums around the world. SHE HAS NOTHING MORE TO PROVE ! Good luck M , from the pic's the movie looks great. I am sure the academy awards committee will give your movie a chance. Your Fans cant wait to see it.

  • Haime | September 1, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    Seriouslly!!!! Just another hater. Does the writer of this article ever won a Pulitzer price? Written for prestigous Magazine? No.
    The review is supposed to be about W.E., not Madonnas attempt in acting..
    Get it together!!!

  • AFsf | September 1, 2011 4:47 AMReply

    " Hopefully the film will be a huge failure and put an end to her time in the director’s chair."

    Wow, what an ureasonably sad little creature you must be, Stephen.

  • Matthew Rettenmund | September 1, 2011 4:45 AMReply

    Disagree on almost every point. Not a brilliant film, but really good.

  • Stephen | September 1, 2011 4:10 AMReply

    Beautiful takedown. All the coverage the film has been getting the last few months had me fearing that the old hag actually made something halfway decent. Hopefully the film will be a huge failure and put an end to her time in the director's chair.

  • OhOh | September 1, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    Ewan MacGregor was never attached to the film.

  • TUTU | September 1, 2011 3:27 AMReply

    Oh Man, Lady Gaga fans strikes again...

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