W.E.: Venice Film Review

W.E. Film Still - H 2011
The Weinstein Company

W.E. Film Still - H 2011

Madonna's second foray into directing is pleasing to the eyes and ears, but lacking anything for the soul.

The Weinstein Co. returns to Britain's 1930s royal melodrama, hoping lightning strikes as it did with their Oscar-winning "King's Speech."

Hop-scotching between glamorous locations, as well as between decades and story strands, with the frequency of its director on a tour, W.E. is as easy on the eyes and ears as it is embalmed from any dramatic point of view. Madonna's second outing as a feature director centers upon an assortment of politely anguished but extremely well-dressed inhabitants of impossibly privileged worlds, two of whom are the fated W. (Wallis) and E. (Edward), stars of Britain's 1930s royal melodrama. Given the several key characters the films have in common, The Weinstein Company can only hope that a bit of The King's Speech interest spills over onto this one, which lacks any compelling selling points of its own, including that of the director herself, who has never sold many cinema tickets. Following its premieres at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, this odd, idiosyncratic piece is due for U.S. release Dec. 9.

Clearly conveying their view that the rarified realms of the rich and famous represent their own sorts of prisons, Madonna and her Truth or Dare collaborator Alek Keshishian have cooked up low-temperature scenario about a contemporary woman's obsession for exploring a link between herself and Wallis Simpson, the divorced wife of an American soldier for whom the heir to the British throne took the unprecedented step of abdicating rather than giving up “the woman I love.”

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But no matter how beguiling the eye candy provided by a stunningly black-haired Abbie Cornish as Wally Winthrop, a woman for whom exploring her celebrity connection is a full-time job, the film most closely resembles a sumptuous documentary about a young beauty on an exclusive shopping expedition; Wally hangs around Sotheby's in New York and takes side trips to Paris and London to see Mohamed Al-Fayed in between bouts of abuse from her bestial husband and furtive rendezvous with a young Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac).

Rather more flavorful is the story of Wallis, played with distinction and an almost poignant sense of resignation by Andrea Riseborough. First glimpsed in Shanghai in 1924 before entering London society in 1931, she is slowly pried from the hold of her burly military husband into the gangly but nonetheless tenacious grasp of Prince Edward (or David, as he was called by intimates). Surprisingly for the truth or dare adherent, Madonna is bashfully silent on the rumored intimate reasons why the king-in-waiting could not bear to lose this ordinary-looking woman.

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Rather, looking at the dilemma more from female side, the filmmaker reveals a dynamic in which Wallis, her intimacy with Edward slowly morphing into unwanted isolation, soon becomes a pawn (never to be a queen) on the royal chessboard, virtually helpless to resist being moved about by forces far more powerful than she. This feeling of inevitability, backed up by snippets of Wallis' own letters registering feelings of being trapped, and her and Edward's eventual sorry fate as “the world's most celebrated parasites,” is the one aspect of the story that rings true on a human level and is appealing and almost touching for that.

The rest, unfortunately, feels artificial, programmed, rote. Especially dreary is the slow-burning affair between Wally and Evgeni, the security guard, who just don't seem meant for each other on any level. Keen to acquire an artifact of Wallis' at an upcoming auction of items from the Windsor estate, Wally has nothing but time to pursue her obsessions. But for the audience, Wally, despite Cornish's gentle and warm presence, offers very little in terms of personal interest or as a key into the world of one of the last century's most discussed couples.

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Enamored of surface appearances, the director and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski make everything look good in an expensive music video sort of way and locations such as the Cote d'Azur , Portofino and assorted royal residences do nothing to detract from the air of wall-to-wall luxury. Musical touches are occasionally striking, while the score proper has a Philip Glass-like sound.

One imaginative casting coup has veteran James Fox playing the aging King George V, with Fox's son Laurence in as a Bertie rather less physically prepossessing than that of Colin Firth.

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