London Film Festival Review: W.E.


A film directed by Madonna is always going to be critic proof to a certain extent, because no matter how bad it is, its defenders will always claim that the writer had an agenda against her to begin with. To be fair, I don’t think I have ever been in a space so concentrated with morbid fascination as the W.E. screening. No-one I talked to was remotely looking forward to it, but none could resist the masochist curiosity to find out how much of a mess it would turn out to be.

Here are my cards on the table. I was one of those people. I did not go to the film expecting to enjoy it. My feelings towards Madonna are complete indifference. She has enormous talent as a self-publicist and the face of a few catchy songs from the ’80s, significantly less as an actress. If you like Madonna, you will probably like W.E., because for its seemingly endless misjudgments, it is a perfect reflection of the creative persona of the woman behind the camera.

Director: Madonna
Release Date: February 3, 2012
Rating: NR

Where Madonna was once a trailblazer of rampant materialism and overt sexuality, dragging the culture of the ’80s to wherever she wanted it to go, the voice of the woman now presenting W.E. is one trapped within itself, unable to escape the hollow gaudiness that was once used as a tool, but is now confused for meaningful art. Human beings in W.E. exist only through the prism of fashion houses and perfume adverts. No men or women, just transvestite-like exaggerations of gender stereotypes. Everyone looks like they just stepped off a Paris catwalk, with zero personality of their own and clothes that scream to draw attention to themselves. The men dress and act like sneering toffs or sailors on shore leave. The woman wear nothing but black and white with stark red lipstick, and suffer nothing but pain for their crime of being too damn fabulous and too longingly romantic.

There is nothing sophisticated or elegant about the film, unless you subscribe to the Dior/Chanel (guess who visibly sponsors the film?) ideal that such things must be plastered with a spatula rather than drawn with the fine strokes of a brush. At one point in the film, the question is raised as to whether a woman is nothing more than the clothes she wears. The answer spoken is in the negative, yet the answer implied offers nothing more than character by costume and seduction by jewellery. Wallis and her modern counterpart Wally are defined by their wardrobes: when they offer expressions of love, or fear, or doubt, it is done in the manner of a breathy advertisement. They are as black and white as their suits. Andrea Riseborough, a fine actress who gave one of my favourite female performances of the year in the remake of Brighton Rock, is wasted as a caricature of a Southern Belle type – albeit one from Pennsylvania.

If the vulgar exterior distracts temporarily from what the film attempts to pass for substance, it can at least only be a good thing. The story pretends to higher meaning about the sacrifices that a woman must make in the pursuit of love (I think Keira Knightley used to be the face of that campaign), but expresses itself in the most trashy chick-lit terms. The narrative chops to and fro between the life of Wallis Simpson as she falls in love with Edward, the heir to the British throne (who would abdicate the crown to be with her), and a modern woman obsessed with Wallis’ life to the extent of spending her days doing nothing but daydreaming about her. In real life, this behaviour would be psychosis. In W.E., it is charming and hopelessly romantic. The same is true of Wallis and Edward: in history, she was a shameless socialite who sympathised with Nazis, while he was a snivelling coward. In Madonna’s mind, they are star-crossed lovers betrayed by a cruel world.

This wouldn’t matter so much if either story complemented or informed the other in any worthwhile way. Wallis’ story is just chunks of her (fictionalised) life, giving no insight into what made her tick or why she supposedly found Edward so irresistible, other than his habit of buying her jewel-encrusted crucifixes. Edward is seemingly enticed by her having read a book he recommended after he expresses a desire to use his position as future King for good, yet at no point does he show any interest in following through on his promises for reform. His interest in the proles extends only so far as it earns him headlines.When he finally gets the chance to make a difference, he gives it all up because he can’t have the woman he wants, and this is somehow admirable.

I assume that modern girl Wally is supposed to take inspiration from Wallis’ life to repair her own, where she is trapped with a man who is presented with any redeeming qualities – the film features a handful of scenes with some unpleasant violence against women, I should add, made all the worse by the fact that they serve no purpose and are presented with an insulting tone of art-by-suffering – but there’s nothing in Wallis’ story that precipitates anything in what passes for her character arc. She daydreams at an exhibition of Wallis’ belongings, spends a ridiculous amount of money at an auction (supposedly expressing her new spirit of freedom, really showing why she should never be allowed near money again) and converses with visions of Wallis herself, yet nothing in any of that is an active part in instigating Wally’s actions. (Or rather, reactions). Wallis’ story at least has a beginning and end of sorts, even if it is only presented in short segments. Wally has no particular goal and ends up dawdling around several barely related scenarios – the troubled marriage, the exhibition, the new romance, the auction, the trip to Paris – with no evident purpose.

Only a scene in which Wallis and Edward liven up a dull film screening – oh, the irony – by spiking the champagne with benzedrine and dancing to an anachronistic Sex Pistols soundtrack is there so much as a hint at the film a younger, punkier Madonna might have made – even the sex scenes are tame and inhumanly staged. Instead, W.E. is a narcissistic monstrosity, the result of an eye so disconnected from reality that it can only see life through the kitsch pretensions of fashion campaigns and perfume adverts. The only time it even has the decency to be accidentally funny is in presenting Mohammed Al-Fayed as a man of deep thought and heart (seriously). It is a vision utterly lacking the finesse and meaning it so desperately believes it has mastered, and can only be called honest in how genuinely it confuses wilful delusions for truth.