In 1998, an auction of the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor causes great excitement. For one woman, Wally Winthrop, it has much more meaning. Wally becomes obsessed by their historic love story. As she learns more about the sacrifices involved, Wally gains her own courage to find happiness. Written by
Far from the best or worst picture of the year, W.E. is certainly the most intriguing. It tells the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and the New York housewife who is obsessed with her in 1998 (played by Abbie Cornish). This is not a straightforward historical film, nor is it trying to be. Instead, the film is a mediation on celebrity, history and the way people search in those realms for meaning in their own lives. For example, Wally in 1998 is trapped in a loveless marriage where she is virtually ignored by everyone, so she imagines Wallis as utterly fabulous, and adored by the man who abdicated for her. "What are you thinking about?" she is asked at one point. She responds, "What it must feel like to be loved that much". Madonna hits that nail right on its head, and this premise is the reason she can't tell the story from a straight historical perspective--celebrities really only exist in our heads. Madonna likely knows this better than anyone. For this reason, Wally waves away her idols alleged Nazi sympathies and the possibility that she and Edward's marriage was not all that it seemed, because in New York in 1998, she needs to believe that love can be eternal. In this context, the much maligned scenes in which Wallis appears to Wally to give advice make perfect sense. All celebrities and historical figures really are figments of our imaginations anyway.
In the end, the theme is that people should not obsess over celebrities, but should "get a life" of their own. This brings us to the films one serious downfall. The audience is forced to spend more than half the movie with Wally, who is beyond boring and unsympathetic. This can be blamed on the script and the performance by Abbie Cornish, who never seems to do any more than pose and read lines. The character was never believable or engaging, and the script must resort to over the top melodrama to move her story along. In short, the 1998 storyline is a mess, and you'd think that a film whose premise is that celebrity-obsessed people need to get a life would have known better than to focus on an obsessed fan with no life.
That said, everything with Wallis is spot on, better even than anything found in "The King's Speech" (2010). Andrea Riseborough, who plays Wallis accomplishes in a single scene what Abbie Cornish couldn't in all of the movie. She makes us admire and care for the woman she's playing. She has a charisma (much like the director herself) that guarantees the indulgence of the audience. She is going to be naughty, and we're going to love her for it.
And thus you have the most interesting movie of the year: half masterpiece, half slog. If the 1931 storyline had been stretched out to 90 minutes, and the 1998 one reduced to 10 or 15, this would have been one of the best films of the year. As it is, it a tremendous curiosity.
I must mention, however, the best scene in the movie, featuring an elderly Wallis and a dying Edward. I shan't give it away except to say that it captures perfectly both the sweetness of enduring love and the sadness, and inevitability of age and death. Where I was laughing derisively at the previous scene, this one had me in tears before it was through. Like I said, a very interesting experience.
I have refrained from mentioning its superstar director, because most critics can't seem to see past their feelings about her as a person. Still, I can't help but note that Madonna is vastly better suited to depict the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous, than the dreary doldrums of us common-folk.
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