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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 10, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 06
Madonna's W.E. revels in superficial artifice
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Madonna's W.E. revels in superficial artifice

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

W.E.
Opening February 10


As a pure experiment in superficial artifice, Madonna's directorial sophomore effort W.E. is spectacular. From Arianne Phillips' (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) Academy Award-nominated costumes to Hagen Bogdanski's (The Beaver) suitably glossy cinematography to Martin Childs' (Shakespeare in Love) sumptuous production design, the movie is as immaculately detailed and designed as anything a person is ever likely to see, the final product an eye-popping extravaganza of opulence that's borderline extraordinary.

Too bad the movie is a fatuous piece of crap, because if it were even remotely dramatically passable, there might be something to talk about. Madonna's script, co-written with Alek Keshishian (Love and Other Disasters), is a mind-blowing mess, so one-dimensional and filled with melodramatic pabulum one wonders why the Grammy-winning icon even bothered in the first place.

I get that she's been interested for ages in the romance of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII. I understand why she wanted to make a film outside of the boundaries of your typical BBC-style biopic, looking to mix things up by bending time between Manhattan circa 1998 and a pre-WWII England. I applaud the audacity behind tackling such a concept, and by and large I respect Madonna's willingness to devote every ounce of her creative acumen to bringing this picture off.

But so what? When a scenario is as insipid as this one is, when the whole thing is only interested in the surface, in those costumes and that production design, or in the sets or the art direction, when a narrative couldn't care less about its characters no matter which era they live in, why the heck should I be concerned with any of it? The simple truth is that I shouldn't, and other than a budding art student trying to glean a few insights from the sensational visuals, I can't imagine anyone who actually would.

Pity, because Madonna has cast two of the best young actresses working today in this disaster, and then stranded them in nothing roles. Andrea Riseborough, so good in small parts in Brighton Rock and Made in Dagenham, comes off best, portraying Wallis Simpson with an internal feminine ferocity the script only fleetingly hints at. She has decent chemistry with James D'Arcy's King Edward, and even though the script paints him more as a nondescript toothless mannequin than it does anything else, Riseborough manages to give their romance a bit of fire the rest of the picture sadly lacks.

It's a shame that Abbie Cornish cannot do the same. The talented young actress who shimmered in Bright Star, Stop-Loss, and Limitless is stuck in the brutal catastrophe that is the 1998 portion of Madonna's romantic epic. She's Ally Winthrop, a frustrated new wife marooned in an abusive marriage who ends up meeting a Ukrainian security guard (Oscar Isaac) during a Sotheby auction of Wallis' and Edward's estate. But as easy melodramatic fodder as that setup sounds, the movie does nothing with it; so intent on crafting beautiful Hallmark card visuals and music video montages, it leaves its modern-day adulterers mulling around desperately searching for something to do.

At some point, Madonna might make a good movie. She has a good visual eye and (it sort of goes without saying) her sense of style is incandescent. But as a director, she has no idea how to handle actors, and as screenwriter, her writing isn't even up to the same standard as her classic and catchy four-minute pop songs. W.E. shows that, while the superficial glossy surface level sheen is impressive as a dramatic sojourn into love, life, and the mystery of romantic entanglement, this film is as big an epic fail as any I could have personally imagined.

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