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USA 2011
Directed by
119 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Synopsis: The story of two women, Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) the future Duchess of Windsor and probably the most maligned woman in England of the 1930s and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a lonely Manhattanite married to a wife-beating psychiatrist husband (James D’Arcy). Wally (named after Wallis) is fascinated by the Duke and Duchess and when their estate goes up for auction at Sotheby's visits the collection daily where she meets a security guard named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), and the inevitable comes to pass.

Madonna’s second directorial effort (I have not seen her first, 2008’s Filth and Wisdom) was comprehensively panned in America and has received a token theatrical release here. It certainly is no masterpiece (the perhaps ill-advised name of a song that Madonna wrote for the film) but, despite the general protestation that there was “nothing personal” in the negative criticism, W.E., co-written by the singer-director with Alek Keshishian, the director of the Madonna concert film Truth or Dare, is a quite impressively realized historical romance.  

I’m not sure how historically accurate is the portrayal of Wallis Simpson (I would have liked to know how she got from her first marriage to her second) but then I’m under the impression that as she and the Duke spent most of their lives in exile no-one really knows that much about her or their relationship. The script intertwines the two women’s lives quite liberally, at times even having them talking to each other. This, and the achronological use of music (one scene, for instance, has a lot of 1930s toffs partying to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”) makes for a refreshingly different perspective, one less concerned with objective fact than subjective perspective. Wallis as we see her seems very much Wally’s (or should that be Madonna’s) imagining of her.

The historical parts of the film are the best although once again historical accuracy is questionable. Thus, King George VI (Laurence Fox) who took the throne after Edward VIII abdicated is very different from the one played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech (2010). Either way, the costume and production design are splendid and Andrea Riseborough is marvellous as Wallis Simpson.

The contemporary section is more tenuous, rather indifferently co-opting filmic conventions to get the story to work. The Sotheby’s auction is a neat way of connecting the two women, but the romance between the neglected wife and the caring, piano-playing refugee relies on the glibbest conventions of the romance genre.

W.E. is not great drama but it is ambitious and elegantly realized and these are not qualities to be so easily dismissed.




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