Co-written and directed by Madonna" could be the most obvious sign of box-office poison there is. That's completely understandable and somewhat tragic. Madonna, for all her musical talent, just isn't very good at decoding movie relationships or the way they're meant to develop in the span of two hours or less. She knows about love's elation and of earth-shattering loss — anyone who says otherwise hasn't given her deeply personal songs like "Oh Father" or "Open Your Heart" a close enough listen.
But onscreen she's almost wholly tone deaf to the way people express themselves, unless the people in question are larger-than-life enough to get away with not revealing too much. That's true of her anomalous portrayal of Eva Peron and of W.E., her second movie as a director, about the controversial Wallis Simpson. Madonna gets women of abnormal stature facing the harsh flashbulbs with their middle fingers held high; it's the normals she may never understand.
W.E. isn't a terrible film. In fact, it's quite lovely when concrete information isn't required. Andrea Riseborough plays Simpson, the twice-divorced, chain-smoking American who stole the heart of Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor — the man who would be king of England in the lead-up to WWII — and married him, eventually becoming Edward's scapegoat for his abdication of the throne (you might remember her from The King's Speech).
Draped in imaginative costumes and surrounded by period-specific production design, Riseborough sparkles, as does Edward, played with pitch-perfect greasiness by James D'Arcy. The Wallis-Edward (W.E.) revisionism plays surprisingly well, if strangely muted.
Although they betray no joy, sexuality, or humor in their relationship, the outside pressures on the pair are appropriately monumental, and it's a testament to Riseborough and D'Arcy that the politics never quite dwarf the couple's self-infatuation.
But the dialogue here is hopelessly wooden, and the couple's lives in exile fall flat. If Madonna had concentrated solely on this era, the movie could have docked sturdily, if not grandly. But in choosing to toggle between Simpson's dizzyingly elegant life and the brain-meltingly dull existence of Wally Winthrop, a morose, neglected wife of a wealthy New York doctor in 1998, Madonna dooms the entire production.
Wally, played by Abbie Cornish, prowls Sotheby's — for no other reason than to delicately trace the preserved artifacts of the Duke and Duchess — and has imagined conversations with Simpson. Long passages are devoted to Wally primping sadly in the mirror, trying on lingerie, as if it might change her personality, and confronting her cheating spouse before heading to Sotheby's yet again.
This is not a character that ever needed to exist. She has nothing in common with Wallis Simpson, and Wally's woes never illuminate the movie's message. She's codependent, hesitant, bored, and weak; in other words, she's nothing like Madonna, Simpson, Peron, or even Cornish, whose mother was a full-contact karate champion. Next time, Madonna, go with what you know.