TORONTO — Of all the personalities to turn up at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, none seemed more outsized, and yet oddly appropriate, than Madonna.
The singer and actress is looking to make her mark on the directing world. And Toronto, host to 300 films and a dizzying array of international celebrities, seems the perfect venue for one of the most famous women in the world to take up a new career. So into town she rode with “W.E.,” a time-jumping historical romance that made its North American premiere at the festival, ahead of its opening for general U.S. audiences on Dec. 9.
Sitting primly (in fishnet stockings) in a hotel suite high above Toronto earlier this week, the 53-year-old made no secret of her latest ambition.”I want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker,” she said.
“I directed ‘Filth&Wisdom’ to teach myself about filmmaking,” she added, alluding to her lightly regarded immigrant tale of music and cross-dressing that was released in 2008. “And now, with this self-punishing process of being a producer and a writer and a director, I’m taking the next step.”
“W.E” cross-cuts the 1998 story of Wally (Abbie Cornish), an unhappily married young woman in New York who becomes increasingly obsessed with early-20th century Baltimore socialite Wallis Simpson. A playful firecracker, Simpson fell in love with — and ultimately married — the Duke of Windsor, a king-in-waiting, in a scandal that rocked England and caused the Duke to abdicate the throne (Eve Best played Wallis in “The King’s Speech,” Guy Pearce, the duke).
In a series of flashbacks and shared-screen fantasy moments with Wally, Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) reveals that any happiness she felt with the duke was gilded at best. The pressure for their relationship to essentially take the place of the monarchy proved, in the end, too much for Simpson to bear.
Madonna said she didn’t set out to make a pessimistic film, but that her own once-starry attitude toward romance has dimmed over the years.
“When we were young, my sister and I would sit around and say we wanted to marry a cowboy poet. That was the ideal,” she said. “And as soon as you have an ideal, the universe conspires to humiliate you. Like you might get that cowboy poet, but they’re a raving lunatic.”
The film’s central theme, however, is arguably not love but fame. Specifically, it’s the gap between Wallis Simpson as perceived by the outside world and Wallis Simpson as her life was really lived — the illicit Buckingham Palace romance, in other words, as TMZ indictment.
Madonna doesn’t shy away from the parallel between Simpson’s circumstance and modern celebrity. “We think we know people like Michael Jackson or Martin Luther King or Marilyn Monroe,” she said. “And yet most people who aren’t in their lives don’t know them at all. Even if you read every book about them, you could never know them.”
Asked if she would put herself in the same category of people few could ever know, she said, “Yes,” then added, “And I don’t have the time to get to know everyone.”
Early response to “W.E.” has ranged from downright negative to conciliatory, but Madonna says she’s tried to remain unbothered by any personal criticism.
“I expected people to let me get in the way,” she said, a coy smile crossing her face.
Riseborough, who did a heavy amount of research to play Simpson, said Madonna’s familiarity with the drawbacks of celebrity elevated the movie beyond a simple romance. Said the actress: “Madonna was a guiding light through what could have just been a historical fairy tale.”
Asked about Madonna’s directing technique, Cornish noted that, “Because of her background, she’s a natural choreographer, and she’s very visual down to the finest detail.”
For her next cinematic effort, Madonna said she has “a few ideas kicking around,” including a movie she has been developing with 14-year-old daughter Lourdes.