Evita and Dick Tracy notwithstanding, Madonna’s film career has been spotty at best. I feel like she tries so hard with every effort, but she’s most comfortable working it on a stage or singing from a disco ball cross. So I was very intrigued when I heard she would be venturing into her second project as a director.
Royal mania hit a high note two years ago with the release of The King’s Speech, as well as the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It only seemed natural another royal-related movie would come along. And so we have W.E.
What I knew of Wallis Simpson and King Edward’s romance was strictly limited to their brief, spoiled appearance in The King’s Speech. But as I perused the Internet, I became more interested in the real-life royal couple, exiled from the throne and England because their love was deemed unacceptable by Queen and country. The more I read, the more interested and excited I became.
I was sad to see the film buried by the Weinstein Company during award season after receiving mixed reviews in the press. I was scared it was all fashion and no heart.
Dear readers, I was wrong.
Two women’s distinct stories run parallel against the backdrop of the 1998 Sotheby’s auction of the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor’s personal items. Wally, an American woman and former Sotheby’s researcher trapped in a loveless and childless marriage, visits the pre-auction exhibit, wandering through china, crystal, and jewels, wishing she could have a love like theirs.
The items are the catalyst for Wallis’ connection with King Edward. A tea cup, a cigarette case, a slip, a necklace–all are used to transport Wally and the viewers back in time to precise moments where Wallis Simpson drew closer to His Royal Highness and the fallout associated with it.
The sequence featuring Wallis Simpson’s famous cross bracelet was particularly breathtaking, showing the small, humbling moments where two people laugh and fall in love and forget about the outside world.
From the very opening shot, Madonna uses long, graceful sweeping camera movement, taking us down empty hallways, propelling us forward and toward people and places. The canvas is muted, full of crisp black and white, making both actresses simultaneously stand out and disappear depending on what each scene requires.
As Wally connects with Evgeni, a security guard at the exhibit in the present day, Wallis Simpson’s life begins to unravel in the past as she begs David–His Royal Highness’ family name–to leave her be or she will be “the most despised woman in the world.”
He gives up the throne and they are exiled to France for the rest of their lives. When Wally travels to France to read the famous lovers’ letters, she sees Wallis in a dream state, who tells her, “Wake up, this isn’t a fairytale.”
Relationships, Raw and Unraveling
We all have certain opinions on famous couples, whether it’s Prince William and Kate Middleton or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. We see these people as glamorous reflections of ourselves. Even among our many circles of friends, me and my husband are known as “the couple.” But behind the red curtain, there is so much work going on, and so much pressure to succeed or fail, given the day and set of personal challenges weighing on us.
One moment that I felt showed the gravity of this feeling was Wallis crying near a window, writing a letter saying she must love David for all time. When he was King and she was married to her second husband, it was a strong connection that could have been taken or left alone. After the abdication, Wallis understood she could never leave him–he had left everything for her, essentially trapping her and keeping her under the flashbulbs of scrutiny forevermore. Love can free you, but it can also trap you with its obligations.
Madonna’s use of sound–from busy streets to news footage playing on a television set or laptop in the background–allows viewers to pick up information and emotions quite quickly. Abel Korzeniowski’s is incredibly gorgeous and one of the most moving scores I’ve listened to in a while, with its piano pieces recalling Phillip Glass’s work on The Hours, another film that shows fictional and famous women colliding and coming undone. At one point, Madonna colors and modernizes moments with contemporary music, strengthening the connection between the two women. At a drunken party set in the late 30s, Madonna plays glam rock while Wallis dances and drinks like a flapper.
Arianne Phillips’ original designs as well as reproductions of vintage Balenciaga and Christian Dior dresses are stunning and her Oscar nomination was well deserved. Cartier also recreated Wallis’ jewels, only to destroy them after the film, to keep the real pieces from depreciating in value.
Both Andrea Riseborough and Abbie Cornish are revelations. When Wallis is staunch in the 1930s, Wally is subdued, half-drugged by her infinite sadness and the fact that her life is slowly passing her by in 1998. [I maintain Abbie Cornish is one of the most overlooked actresses of our time. If you’ve not see Bright Star, well, she portrays first love for everything it is, while she showcases the death and rebirth of modern love here.]
Overall, W.E. is a brilliant look into one of the Royal Family’s most notorious and misunderstood romances while shining a light on celebrity obsessions and our projections of who we think people are without really seeing or giving them the space to inhabit this earth and love each other as they please.