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Friday, April 27, 2012

W.E. -- DVD review by porfle



With Madonna directing her first big-budget feature (after a more modest debut with 2008's "Filth and Wisdom") I can imagine the two main reactions were her fans hoping that she would succeed and her detractors gleefully waiting for her to fall on her face.  For those of us in the middle, however, her film W.E. (2011) is just a dull, plodding, and, despite all the bells and whistles, rather ordinary affair. 

Those most disappointed will probably be viewers interested in seeing a movie about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, namely the former King Edward VIII and American divorcee Mrs. Wallis Simpson, for whom he abdicated the throne.  Their story (told with much more feeling despite much less screen time in THE KING'S SPEECH) is merely a backdrop for the modern-day tale of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), an unhappily married woman obsessed with what she sees as the famous couple's storybook romance. 

While haunting a major memorabilia auction at Sotherby's, Wally meets and is courted by handsome Russian immigrant Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) who works security.  When her turbulent relationship with husband William (Richard Coyle) turns violent, Evgeni is there to pick up the pieces.  Meanwhile, Wally's search for information about "W.E." (Wallis and Edward) leads to some personal letters which reveal that even a storybook romance has its downside and that poor Mrs. Simpson had to sacrifice much more than Edward did for their love.  (Not sure why, but that's what Madonna says and so that's the way it is.)

What these two stories have to do with each other is tentative at best, and at worst they don't really compliment each other at all.  The modern-day scenes have the air of an opulently-mounted Lifetime TV-movie which tends to be either maudlin or romance-novel unreal.  They also stop whatever forward momentum the "W.E." scenes manage to generate dead in its tracks just as we start to get mildly interested in what Eddie and Wallis are up to during their intermittent screen time. 

We never get a sense of why this celebrated couple were so irresistible to each other--when they meet at a royal to-do, she's not all that dynamic and he's hardly the most dashing man in the room.  In fact, as played by James D'Arcy, Edward seems neither distinguished nor charismatic.  As Wallis, Andrea Riseborough looks the part yet never convinces us that she's fascinating enough to give up a kingdom for.  An early scene in which Edward discovers that Wallis reads books and follows politics is about all it takes for him to go bananas over her.

Once we realize that Wally is the film's main focus and that "W.E." are merely there as a counterpoint to her story, the main question is "why?"  Wally's fixation on the Windsors, her problems with an impotent and possibly unfaithful husband who doesn't want kids like she does, and her budding romance with Evgeni are like unflavored yogurt with a few raisins mixed in.  And even the raisins taste a little funny. 

When Wally pops up in some of the period flashbacks to observe history firsthand, Wallis catches sight of her and barks "Get a life!"  Wally also starts seeing and conversing with the Duchess in the modern-day scenes the way Christian Slater conjures up Elvis in TRUE ROMANCE and Woody Allen consults with a ghostly Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN , SAM.  Saying that such quirks take us out of the movie is putting it mildly.  Another thing that had me wondering was when Wally's doctor husband explains his absence the night before by saying that he was called in to the emergency room at the hospital.  This would be fine, except he's supposed to be a child psychologist.

With Madonna both helming and co-scripting, the men are all either handsome princes, evil bastards, or wimps (after meeting Edward, Wallis dumps her current hubby like a used Kleenex and the poor slob dutifully crawls off into oblivion), while the women are self-sacrificing and "strong" yet oppressed and unfulfilled.  Madge herself fulfills the directing imperative like a kid rummaging around in a toybox, greeting each new scene as an opportunity to be overly-creative and "expressive" with a non-stop barrage of music-video editing, unnecessarily busy camera movements, and a hyperactive musical score which at one point even has Mrs. Simpson bopping to the Sex Pistols.
 
Even late in this rather long film, Wally's visit to Paris to view the Simpson letters is padded with an extended montage of her roaming the streets while the camera makes sweeping circles around her. Interesting moments such as Wallis inadvertently calling Edward "David" (a name reserved for his lovers and family) in front of his then-girlfriend during a dinner party are few and far between. 

The DVD (also available as a 3-disc Blu-Ray/DVD+Digital Copy set) from Anchor Bay and the Weinsteins is in 2.35:1 widescreen with 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  The sole extra is a 23-minute "making of" featurette.

With period flashbacks that come off as a "greatest hits" package with little or no depth, and a contemporary story that overwhelms the proceedings with its resolute blandness, W.E. is hardly the major historical romance one might have expected.  Thus, Madonna's leap over to the other side of the camera after years of unsuccessfully courting movie stardom is best described as a perversely interesting misfire.


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