Thursday, March 1, 2012

An affair remembered -- but not well

If you enjoy hating Madonna, a pursuit many seem to regard as a kind of moral obligation, you'll definitely be put off by W.E., Madonna's look at the relationship between divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII. Wallis and Edward's world-shaking affair led Edward to abdicate the throne in 1936. He claimed that he could not rule without the woman he loved at his side.

If you're not a Madonna hater -- and I'm not -- you still may be disappointed by Madonna's directorial effort, a lavishly empty attempt to say something (I'm not sure what) about obsessive love.

Perhaps fearing that the Simpson/Edward relationship -- shown briefly in The King's Speech -- has lost its sensational luster, Madonna and screenwriter Alek Keshishian juxtapose it with a story that takes place in 1998: A young married woman -- in the throes of a bad marriage -- becomes obsessed with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

It's just here that the movie falls apart: The movie's two stories do not seem to inform or enhance each other, and taken on their own, the Manhattan segments aren't all that intriguing.

Nothing wrong with Madonna's casting: Andrea Riseborough, who plays Simpson, may be more attractive than her real-life counterpart, but she conveys Simpson's troubling mixture of ambition and confusion. Edward (James D'Arcy) comes across as something of a lightweight.

Abbie Cornish also acquits herself well as a Manhattan woman who's fascinated by items once owned by Simpson and Edward, possessions that are being auctioned off as the story unfolds. Cornish's Wally Winthrop strikes up a relationship with an auction house security guard (Oscar Isaac). He arranges for her to have private viewings, and becomes romantically interested in her.

Madonna seems to have spared little expense in capturing the formal but slightly decadent ambiance around Edward, but W.E. seems more self-consciously arty than it needs to be.

I've read British reviews of W.E. that take Madonna to task for not doing more to show that the fashion-conscious Simpson wanted to catch a king. In this version, it's Edward who pushes for marriage.

I don't know if that criticism is justified, but I do know that W.E. stands as a stylish mediocrity that definitely could have benefited from some of the flashy/trashy wit Madonna brings to her stage shows.

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