Madonna’s ‘W.E.’ – One hell of a cinematic mess



Call it Blonde Ambition but Madonna is not content with being just a pop star.

Few can dispute her huge influence on pop music over the past 28 years but her forays into other art forms have been far from a critical success.

Always keen to reinvent herself, she teamed up with photographer Steve Meisel for the hugely controversial and much derided erotic photographic book ‘Sex’ – although it did still manage to sell 1.5 million copies within a matter of days.

In 2006, she joined forces with the clothing retailer H&M to produce her own line of M clothes.

And then there have been her many appearances in front of a movie camera – none of which have been stunning whether it was in Susan Seidelman’s ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, as Breathless Mahoney opposite Warren Beatty’s ‘Dick Tracy’, Evita Peron in Alan Parker’s ‘Evita’ or Uli Edel’s ‘Body of Evidence’ – a poor man’s ‘Basic Instinct’.

Unable to rest, Madonna first tried her hand at directing a movie in 2008 with the critically mauled comedy ‘Filth and Wisdom’ about three London flatmates.

And now she is back with ‘W.E.’ – a movie which races between the ups and downs of a modern day New York socialite Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) and the passionate romance between Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and the twice divorced Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough).

When the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, it was slated. But is ‘W.E.’ as bad as the reviews suggest?

Well, it isn’t good. But it’s not terrible either. It’s just one hell of a mess.

Madonna’s movie unconvincingly draws parallels between Wally’s troubled marriage to an abusive doctor husband (Richard Coyle) and the travails of Wallis Simpson.

Obsessed by the Edward and Mrs Simpson’s passionate love story, Wally hangs around Sotheby’s in Manhattan staring at their belongings in the days before they are auctioned. In the process, she strikes up an unlikely bond with a Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) which develops into a romance.

Forever the Material Girl, Madonna makes possession the central theme of her movie.

One one level, we see Edward so possessed by his love for Wallis Simpson that he abdicates the throne.

And yet on another level, we see Wally possessed by a desire to possess artefacts once owned by Mrs Simpson – she subsequently spends $10,000 on gloves owned by the divorcee at Sotheby’s.

As if to hammer this home, cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski’s camera occasionally lingers over jewellery, tableware, clothes owned by both women.

But these are rare moments in a movie that hares around at a blistering, almost head spinning pace.

There is no doubt this is a very stylish movie, with Arianne Philips’ costume design and some wonderful art and set direction standing out.

However it is all style, with very little substance.

The movie is undermined by a clunky screenplay by Madonna and Alek Keshikian and that, in turn, leads to unconvincing performances by Cornish, Coyle, Riseborough and D’Arcy.

The device of having Wallis Simpson suddenly appear to dispense advice in Wally’s world and vice versa is hugely annoying.

Madonna’s frenzied direction is hugely distracting. Eager to flex her directorial muscles, the film jumps around like an Oliver Stone movie between grainy black and white footage to glossy colour.

There is no subtlety in her approach. The director may as well be screaming over the soundtrack: “Look at what I’m doing!”

It reaches its nadir in a cack handed sequence where the Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ blasts over slow mo imagery of Wallis and Edward partying.

It also doesn’t help that the movie comes a year after the far superior ‘The King’s Speech’, which dealt with some of the same events and the same characters and walked away as the big winner on Oscar night.

And yet for all these faults, ‘W.E.’ is strangely watchable. There are moments where Madonna shows promise as a director (a sequence with umbrellas recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Foreign Correspondent’) and a strong appreciation of the possibilities of sound.

However overall, it’s a bit like the Emperor’s new clothes. It seems the cast and crew haven’t told Pop’s Queen she is in her all togethers. But, then again, given her penchant for shedding clothes during her career, Madonna would probably think that is normal.

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