Saturday, May 19, 2012

W.E. Are Not Amused

W.E. 

This is a legendary story, that of His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Windsor and his wife, Her Grace Wallis, Duchess of Windsor (under normal circumstances it would be Her Royal Highness but we'll get to that in a minute).  Here are the facts: then-King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American.  They lived out their post-Abdication years in exile, mostly in France both pre-and-post World War II. 

One can look at their life together one of two ways.  The romantic would look on this the story of a man who gave up everything to be with "the woman I love" and spent the rest of their lives in lavish settings and in love.  The cynic would see two dillentantes with entitlement complexes who, in the words of a conteporary, lived this "uttery trivial life" who went to parties, the theater, and on holiday "when their whole life was one big holiday".  W.E., the feature film directed and co-written by Madonna (alongside Alek Kekishian), would on the surface appear to be right up the Material Girl's street.  Who better to know the frivolity of fame than our pop star?  However, W.E. ends up being a vanity project about a remarkably vain woman by a remarkably vain woman.

W.E. has parallel stories.  There is the actual story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), her first two marriages, then her meeting, romancing, marrying, and living out her life with His Majesty Edward VIII (James D'Arcy).  The Duke of Windsor's brother, now George VI, refused to confer the title "HER Royal Highness" or HRH to "that woman", and from what I understand it was hers by right of marriage (hence the use of "Her Grace" to refer to the Duchess of Windsor).  Then there is the story of Wally Winthrop (Abbey Cornish), married to William (Richard Coyle).  She is desperate for a child but so far they have yet to have one, and she turns to in-vitro fertility treatments despite her suspicions of her husband's infidelity.  It is the 1998 auction of the Duke and Duchess' possessions, and Wally (whom we learned was named after Time Magazine's Woman of the Year of 1936) has become obsessed with their story.  She goes to the public viewing of their items (she has some pull given she used to work at Sotheby's and still has friends there), and soon an attraction builds between Wally and Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac). 

The stories bound around back and forth between Mrs. Simpson and Mrs. Winthrop with nary a reason to connect one with the other.  If seeing both stories collide with each other wasn't already bad enough, Wallis and Wally meet, as in literally interact with each other.  Once or twice one could make the case that it is part of Wally's fevered imagination, but at least once W.E. makes it appear as if Wally had somehow entered the past to get brushed off by Wallis

Madonna is simply incapable of making the stories make any sense.  The Wally and Wallis stories don't flow naturally from one to the other.  Instead, they collide and crash without much sense of where Wally's desire to have a child connects with Wallis' desire to...what exactly?  Marry the King?  Get rich and famous?  Perhaps have a child of her own?  In short, there is nothing to bring these two women's separate stories together. 

The jumping around between the stories entre Wally et Wallis is just one of the myriad of problems W.E. gleefully indulges in.  It's bad enough that Madonna simply cannot balance the stories.  She apparently can't balance the picture either.  Madonna 'accomplishes' this by having absolutely no control of the camera: the picture zooms in and out in a haphazard, almost deranged manner.  We have no real reason or understanding why we are given close-ups of eyes or lips. Add to that sound effects that are either exagerrated (such as having crashing sounds when Wally injects herself) or that are simply never explained.  In one point, we hear the sound of cars crashing, but we never see any cars crashing and can't connect it with anything else on screen.

In short, as I kept watching W.E., I kept getting the idea that this style of filmmaking is what a first-year film student imagines to be 'artsy', rather than say...coherent.

If all that weren't enough to make W.E. a disorganized mess, the director failed to actually direct her actors.  Almost everyone on screen appears to have been given the same stage directions: appear completely blank, almost bored, speaking in soft voices, even while in the midsts of arguings.  Particulary bad are the men: Isaac appears bored as the supposedly lovelorn Evgeni, Coyle similarly bored and perhaps perplexed as William (the issue of an affair is never firmly established), and D'Arcy doesn't inspire much passion as the torn monarch.  On the last point I will cut D'Arcy some slack, given His Majesty was not the brightest of men.

The women, in fairness, were better.  Particular praise is reserved for Riseborough, who managed her American South accent excellently and more importantly, she played Wallis as a complex woman.  She was brittle and haughty one moment, deeply scared and scarred in another, and actually willing to show love to her dying husband by breaking out into a Twist to fulfill his request she dance for him.  Cornish also has some good moments as Wally (in particular when she expresses her desire for a child).  It's unfortunate that Cornish had a thin character to play and was directed to be one-note.

A stronger director and a better script could have made Cornish's character and her plight better.  A stronger director and a better script (perhaps one that focused on Mrs. Simpson herself rather than being unsure whether she was the main or secondary character) would have showcased Riseborough's strong performance as the Duchess.  If there were any justice, she would be allowed another crack at the role of Wallis in a better movie.

If anything good can be said about W.E., it is that it is if anything else a pretty picture to look at.  Arianne Phillips' costumes are beautiful, bringing all the chic that the Duchess was known for.  The cinematography of Hagen Bogdanski at times is equally lovely (whenever Madonna allowed him to keep things steady rather than indulge her passion for Steady-Cam, which I think was used in W.E. slightly more than in any Bourne film).  That's a plus: the overall look of W.E.  However, when one is reduced to say, "well, the costumes were nice", then the film has serious problems. 

W.E. is a frustrating film because it seems determined to waste so many opportunities with parallel stories that never mesh, performances that cannot rise above the bored and lazy material (with the exception of Riseborough and perhaps Cornish), and because in its mad desire to be artsy it fails to be interesting or good.  Near the end, we see how with more thought W.E. could have been worth it.  Wallis in voiceover says to Wally (who is reading her private letters), "It is hard to live out the Greatest Love Story of the Century".  If we could have seen how/why Wally was so obsessed with this love story, how it did not live up to her own life, and how in truth this love story is really a tragedy about two empty lives tied together by the fantasies of people like Wally, W.E. would have been a beautiful film about the falsity of those romantic idealizations other have.  We could have seen a film about how the images of Wallis and Edward, together in love, were really images of two people condemned to live out their lives in shadow with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Instead, we saw a pretty picture with nothing to offer either in insight or intelligence.  I leave up to you whether in that case, W.E. is a perfect film reflecting either or both the subjects of the film and/or of its maker. 

His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Windor:
1894-1972
Her Grace Wallis, Duchess of Windsor: 1896-1986


DECISION: D+

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