TORONTO – Something peculiar happened at the press screening for Madonna’s “W.E” this morning at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Unlike, the packed first showing at the Venice Film Festival less than two weeks ago, there were no unexpected irruptions of laughter. And you didn’t have press passionately ripping the drama as they walked out of the theater. In fact, the reaction was much more subdued. Granted, the Venice reaction scared away many of the industry and press who might have seen it (about 40% of the theater was full), but there was no flurry of “The sky is falling! Madonna directed a movie!” tweets afterward. Having now seen “W.E” with a roomful of non-Venice critics, it only convinces this pundit that the reviewers that day were either consciously or subconsciously looking for anything in the film to rip its director and rip they did. And while their scathing reviews were harsh (um, did anyone see “Anonymous”?), let’s be clear; “W.E” is not a good movie. Yes, it has serious problems, but it also has a lot of impressive things about it as well.
The biggest mistake Madonna and co-screenwriter Alex Keshishian (“Truth or Dare,” the underrated “Love and Other Disasters”) make is in the structure of their story (usually a fatal problem). “W.E” centers on Wallie (Abbie Cornish), a rich doctor’s wife struggling in modern day Manhattan to understand why her husband is so cold to her. Is it because they cannot conceive children? Is he having an affair? Or, perhaps they just truly don’t love each other? It matters little because after their first scene together it’s clear the husband (a misused Richard Coyle) won’t matter much to the viewer in the long run. Depressed at her situation, Wallie returns to her old professional haunt Sotheby’s where an exhibit of items owned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, are being auctioned off. Wallie, it seems, has always been fascinated by the story of the 20th Century’s most romantic “fairytale” and spends the next few days going through every item set for auction. As things get worse at home with her husband, Madonna flashes back to the Wallis and Edward story in a fairly obvious contrast between Wallie and Simpson. Eventually, Wallie leaves her husband after falling for a Russian security guard (but fantastic piano player) at the auction house (Oscar Issacs).
To be blunt, the modern day portion of the film doesn’t work at all. Cornish is simply awful looking like a low-rent Charlize Theron making Wallie seem like a bore and evoking little sympathy for her. This is mostly the fault of the script, but even when Issacs shows up trying to bring any chemistry or life to their characters relationship she’s like a blank wall. It doesn’t help that the film spends too much time in the auction house (product placement?) or Wallie’s upper crust New York life seems hard to find that sad. And, you can’t blame Madonna for Cornish’s uninspired turn. Cornish has been weak before (“Stop-Loss,” “Limitless”) and it’s unclear if any director could have pulled something interesting out of her here. Where the film works and is most fascinating is in depicting Simpson’s life.
Madonna, who admits she’s been long fascinated by the Windsor love affair, makes an excellent point when Wallie verbalizes that everyone always talks about what Edward gave up in renouncing his throne, but no one mentions what Simpson lost. Beautifully shot and executed, the period scenes depict the love affair between Simspson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D’Arcy) are mostly from Simpson’s point of view and hint that as much as she loved the King she was also just as trapped by his obsession for her. For example, in a unique 180 from last year’s Oscar winner “The King’s Speech” (also released domestically by The Weinstein Company), Wallis sees Queen Elizabeth, Duchess of York (aka The Queen Mother) as scheming to make sure her husband, King George VI isn’t overshadowed by the in exile former King (Edward) and his new bride retuning to England. Madonna succeeds in creating genuine sympathy for Wallis while not masking the fact this was a woman who divorced two husband and knew what she was getting into when tempting Edward while still a married woman. Moreover, this material is powerful enough on its own to carry an entire film. Madonna and Keshishian only complicate matters by trying to tie it into a lame and predictable contemporary tale.
Unlike the miscast Cornish, Riseborough is fantastic as Simpson as she basically stealing every scene she’s in. Moviegoers have mostly seen her in supporting roles in films such as “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Never Let Me Go,” but the talent she displays here is one reason her star is rising and she’ll be starring alongside Keira Knightley and Saorise Ronan in Joe Wright’s upcoming adaptation of “Anna Karenina.” D’Arcy is solid as Edward VII, thankfully dropping the effeminate mannerisms Guy Pearce gave the Prince in “King’s Speech” and giving the historical figure a sense that he’s truly aware of the consequence of his actions.
Having worked with some of the most visually iconic music directors and filmmakers in the world over her career such as David Fincher, Mark Romanek and Alan Parker it’s no surprise the legendary music icon has a fantastic eye. Working with cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski (“The Lives of Others,” “The Young Victoria”) Madonna gorgeously recreates 1930’s England and has a clear idea of how she wants to communicate visually with the audience. And while she tends to use too much music throughout the picture, there are moments when Abel Korzeniowski’s gorgeous score is used to help fashion some wonderfully cinematic moments (again, mostly in the period portions).
Debuting at Venice was obviously not a smart move for “W.E.” Instead, it could have benefited from a premiere at a smaller festival such as AFI Fest or the London Film Festival. The picture is not an awards season player, but it’s certainly not a Razzie contender either. Hopefully, critics and the media will give Madonna more credit the next time around. Because if you know anything about Madonna these early reactions will only fuel her to direct once again and prove she has true cinematic talent. “W.E” proves she’s certainly getting better.
“W.E” is currently scheduled to open on Dec. 9.