On Tuesday at TIFF, I caught Madonna’s film, W.E. After being booed in Venice, the Torontonian audience was a lot more receptive to the film about the gripping love story of Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson. The movie is both aesthetically pleasing and emotianally rich, with strong themes of domestic violence, miscarriage and how love conquers all.
The film follows the lives of two women, Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the glamourous divorcee who courts Prince Edward (James D’Arcy), and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), an American living in New York in 1998. The stories play out in parallel, with Wally being transported into daydreams of the past when she views the items on display at a Sotheby’s auction featuring the luxurious wares of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Wallis and Edward or W.E.). Wally dreams of being loved unconditionally by her husband, William, an upper-crust doctor who is unfaithful and completely uncommitted to fulfilling Wally’s desire of bearing children. When Wally meets a handsome security guard, Evgeny (Oscar Isaac), Wally finds the E to her W, creating her own W.E.
The film is beautifully shot, with vistas of the French Riviera that are breathtaking. The film is rich in splendour, with stately homes, Cartier jewellery and elegant fashion. Wallis’ wardrobe is the element that carries this movie along. Her character is even cheeky about it, when Edward rips her dress, she yells and gives him a piece of her mind exclaiming, “It is Schiparelli after all!” Costume designer Arianne Phillips created an extensive wardrobe for Wallis, with over 80 costume changes. My jaw dropped as she would appear scene after scene in an immaculate outfit, bringing the glamour of the 30s to life. While Wallis isn’t attractive, she knows that fashion is a powerful weapon in keeping a man under her spell. And Madonna knows that fashion is a powerful weapon in keeping an audience under the film’s spell.
In contrast, Wally’s wardrobe is drab and dark. She rarely appears in a colour, which completely washes her out. While both Cornish and Riseborough deliver passionate performances, I found Wally’s character to be unrelatable, naive and unnecessary to the storyline. The film had the potential to be a memorable fashion biopic unveiling the misunderstood love story of Wallis and Prince Edward. Instead, the audience would be rocked back and forth from modern day to the past, with little warning and no conherency.
The flashbacks weren’t tactfully executed, even though the film had compelling cinematography. The script wasn’t developed enough, and could have meshed the two women’s stories better. Wally’s own story ran parallel to Wallis, repeating themes of spousal abuse, miscarriage and devotion, but this mimicry almost cheapened Wallis’ poignant story.
I left the movie feeling sorry for Wallis. I pitied the way she gave up her privacy and went on to becoming the most hated woman in the world for making Prince Edward abdicate the throne. But she chose to live with the love of her life, who showered her with his attention and eye-popping baubles.
This film is an impressive directorial debut for Madonna. Once you forget the superstar at the helm, you can appreciate the film’s superficial beauty and romance.