In 1998 Manhattan, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish, "Bright Star," "Sucker Punch") waits in her lavishly appointed Park Avenue apartment for her physician husband, who claims work has made him miss dinner. Seventy years earlier in Shanghai, the woman she was named for gives up on dinner, then is beaten into a miscarriage by her late arriving drunken U.S. Navy pilot husband. When Wally visits Sotheby's pre-sale collection of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, she finds a new understanding of Wallis who gave up plenty of her own to become part of the storied couple known by their entwined initials, "W.E."
Co/writer (with her "Truth or Dare" documentor Alex Keshishian)/song writer/director Madonna ("Filth & Wisdom") did a lot of research in preparation for her film about Wallis Simpson and her efforts paid off in casting (Riseborough), locations (Martin Childs, "From Hell," production designer), costumes (Arianne Phillips, "A Single Man"), all beautifully photographed by "The Lives of Others'" Hagen Bogdanski. But her parallel story approach fails and Bogdanski's images have been brutalized by editor Danny Tull ("Miss Conception").
The film would have been richer had it been a transference of personality film or even if the modern story had informed the historical one instead of an insipid vice versa, where the historical woman begins pregnant and ends up imprisoned and barren while the other finds her freedom and fertility. Madonna's made a very 'girly' movie with opulent locations, stunning wardrobes, lavish jewelry, decadent parties and the occasional lush piece of music (Henry Mancini's 'Lujon') that is too often edited like a music video and poorly at that.
A downcast Cornish acts her way through this whispering her lines as if she'll disappear, dissolving into an old photograph at any moment. It's an enervated rendition of some gothic heroine from a Harlequin romance and, as her celebrated husband, Richard Coyle ("Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") is simply snide. As a concession, Wally's story includes a potential love interest in Russian Sotheby's security guard Evgeni played by easy-on-the-eyes Oscar Isaacs ("Agora," "Drive") to spice up the proceedings when editor Tull isn't busy cutting away to a tearful eye or flash of fabric (one one to two second snippet of film has an awkward zoom in the middle of it).
On the other hand, rising young English actress Andrea Riseborough ("Never Let Me Go," "Brighton Rock") is astonishingly good as American divorcee Wallis Simpson, like a diamond set in tin. If Madonna's movie weren't so awful, Riseborough may have been getting serious awards attention. She's able to combine such conflicting motivations as ambition and compassion seducing Edward (James D'Arcy, "Exorcist: The Beginning"), heir to the British throne, while maintaining affection for second husband Ernest Simpson (David Harbour, TV's 'Pan Am'), a regular old brick who knows the deck's stacked against him. Riseborough also shows the fragility of the woman who made an Empire tremble, the doubt over Edward's abdication. The low, throaty American voice, upturned eyes and quick, fluid movements showcase the allure of a woman who put a lot of effort into making the most of what she had. But in providing her a background, a lot of notable actors appear to little effect - James Fox ("Performance") for a couple of bedridden complaints as the king, Judy Parfitt ("Dolores Claiborne") as the disapproving queen, Geoffrey Palmer of the beloved 'As Time Goes By' for a few lines as the Prime Minister. Fox's son Laurence ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age") provides little but "A King's Speech" stutter as Edward's younger brother who assumed the throne in his stead.
This film is twaddle, the very definition of vanity project albeit a handsomely mounted one. Sure, Madonna succeeds in casting a new light on one of history's most hated women (in no small part due to Riseborough's great skill), but does she really understand what she's doing as a filmmaker? During a debauched party thrown by the not-yet-married pair, Edward spices things up by slipping Benzedrine into his guests' champagne glasses and Wallis dances like a flapper before their movie screen to the Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' That would be a critique against the director's subjects whom she is sympathizing with, would it not? Or maybe it just seemed like the cool thing to do. There is absolutely no sense of irony when modern day Wally throws down over $10,000 for a few pairs of gloves at a Sotheby auction, an action encouraged by her far less advantaged Russian suitor. How in touch. Maybe Madonna would be the perfect choice to direct "Sex and the City 3."
Robin did not see this film.
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