W.E. is the second feature film credited to former MTV queen Madonna, and the second film in 12 months, after The King's Speech, to dramatize the empire-imperiling affair between the future King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) and American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), a woman who couldn't be queen. It was lambasted by critics at the fall festivals, with many citing a late-inning scene in which a Benzedrine-addled, World War II–era Simpson dirty-dances to “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols as particularly indicative of its maker's cluelessness.
Certainly, W.E. is the work of a woman who apparently hasn't spent time with normal human beings in a while (dig the Pottery Barn catalog loft in “scary” Brooklyn occupied by the film's Wise Ethnic, who is of course a genius slumming as a security guard, and who of course saves the day with his virility). But Madonna's anachronistic use of music is the least of her movie's problems.
In telling the story of the Simpson affair through the blatantly whacked lens of Wally (Abbie Cornish), an unhappy trophy wife in late-'90s Manhattan, who becomes obsessed with the “fairy tale” romance of Wallis and Edward when the couple's effects are auctioned by Sotheby's, Madonna borrows heavily from the music-video form she's already mastered: aesthetics first, with an anything-is-possible antilogic. It's basic storytelling that stymies her.
There is a kernel of a fascinating film here about the dangers of coveting luxuries (particularly someone else's), and of imbuing beautiful things with imagined life. But as Wally's story goes on (and on, and on … ), the admittedly gorgeous film falls increasingly deeper into the fetishization it takes as its subject, repeatedly imbuing clothes and jewelry with heavy symbolism, forgetting any impulse to critique. But even a shot of a pearl necklace falling off a woman as she's being beaten by her husband is too dumb to really gall. “Pretty Vacant” is perhaps a more apt theme song than Madonna realizes. —Karina Longworth (Opens Dec. 9 at the ArcLight Hollywood for a one-week qualifying run.)