The W stands for Wallis Simpson; the E stands for King Edward VIII. But the film Madonna has made about their scandalous romance and the subsequent abdication stands for very little at all, its surface opulence masking a shallow trifle that preaches that the rich and royal have it tough too. Where, then, should one’s sympathies lie in this double-stranded vanity project?
With the social climber Wallis (Andrea Riseborough), whose toying with Edward (James D’Arcy) initiates a constitutional crisis and condemns them both to a joyless existence as parasitic pariahs? Or with bored wife Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a ’90s Manhattanite who finds solace in an extramarital affair with security guard Oscar Isaac and a fetishistic obsession with Wallis’ glam possessions at Sotheby’s?
By gliding back and forth between ’30s London and near-contemporary New York, Madge and co-scribe Alek Keshishian attempt to show that love’s the same in a palace or a high-rise. Yet all they do is prove how in thrall they are to wealth, power and privilege, notably in a gag-inducing scene in which Wally goes cap-in-hand to Mohamed Al Fayed (Haluk Bilginer) in the hope of accessing some rare Simpson memorabilia.
As handsomely mounted as a deer’s head on the walls of Balmoral, W.E. looks a dream with its vintage clobber, ornate salons and flawless furnishings. Yet the film feels as false as a freshly Botoxed forehead, not to mention disingenuous in the way it glosses over the reluctant ruler’s Nazi sympathies.
Riseborough comes out of it pretty well as a woman aware of the havoc she’s causing but is powerless to stop. But walking away doesn’t make it any less of a car crash.