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W.E.

W.E.

Released 20 January 2011
Director Madonna
Starring


Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy, Oscar Isaac
Writer(s) Alex Keshishian, Madonna
Producer(s) Kris Thykier, Colin Vaines
Origin United Kingdom
Running Time 119 minutes
Genre Drama, romance
Rating 16
35

Who’s that director?

Though she may be the Queen of Pop for going on three decades now, Madonna's previous adventures in cinema have generally been disastrous. Though she made an agreeable mainstream debut with a supporting role in Desperately Seeking Susan she followed that with the huge flop Shanghai Surprise with her then husband Sean Penn. Over the years further horrors followed such as Who’s That Girl, Body of Evidence and The Next Best Thing. She got some decent reviews for Evita, but in truth that role required her to sing more than act. Perhaps her nadir was a film made with another of her ex-husbands, Guy Ritchie. He directed her in Swept Away back in 2002 and it was considered so bad that it didn’t even get a cinema release in Britain.

Since that catastrophe, she has mercifully stayed away from acting roles but when the news broke that someone had let her direct a film; it was greeted with genuine dread. True, she had dabbled in directing already with some short films but this is her first feature film. Not only is she directing but she also co-produced and co-wrote it with Alek Keshishian, who presumably has been locked away for his own safety since directing the execrable documentary In Bed With Madonna. So, just how bad can this be?

Like Julie & Julia from two years ago, the film concerns itself with two women with similar names from different ages. Wally (Abbie Cornish) lives in New York in 1998, married to her famous psychiatrist husband (Richard Coyle). Despite her privileged Manhattan lifestyle, Wally is unhappy. Her husband neglects her and in her loneliness, she’s desperate to have a baby. She’s also obsessed with the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) the American woman who King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) abdicated the throne for in 1936. The action flicks back and forward between Wallis’s life before and after she met Edward and Wally’s life in New York as she attends an exhibit and auction of the royal couple’s personal effects. Wally also starts a tentative friendship with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac).

To be fair to Madonna, it’s not completely abysmal and she does direct competently even if you do feel at times that you’re watching the camerawork from one of her ‘90s videos. As with Julie & Julia, the central flaw is that the modern part of the film is far less interesting than the historical part. It does feature a fine performance from Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson, but you almost wish she’d saved the performance for a better film.

The same cannot be said of Abbie Cornish’s performance though. The young Australian has shown in other films that she has talent but she seems to have made the disastrous choice to take acting notes from her director. You can almost imagine Madonna telling her that she wants ‘less facial expression, a more monotone voice, deader eyes’ as Cornish wanders around like a pretty zombie. It makes it impossible to care about Wally’s domestic battles with her husband, which come across like a school play version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Coyle even seems to be channelling Richard Burton with his old-fashioned glasses and ever-present tumbler of whiskey.

The parts featuring Wallis and Edward’s travails are far better executed. It’s pretty clear that Madonna is sympathetic to Simpson and feels she’s been unfairly maligned over the years, even extending to her brief appearance in last year’s The King’s Speech. To be fair, it’s no harm that someone is taking up her cause for a bit of balance, however you wonder why she didn’t just make a proper film about her instead of bringing in this pointless, gimmicky structure to make it more ‘modern’. In particular the scenes where both the central characters meet in Wally’s dreams are especially irritating.

So Madonna’s debut feature is not a total disaster, but nor is it necessarily a good film either. The always excellent Riseborough’s performance makes this film worthwhile but overall it's dreary, over-long and badly misconceived.

- Jim O’Connor