Wallis Simpson and King Edward III had the kind of romance, we’re told in W./E. that could only be found in fairy tales. The twice-divorced American commoner somehow caught the eye of the future King of England, who gave up everything—including the throne—to be with her. Cinderella should be so lucky.
Though the posters, trailers, and DVD/Blu-Ray packaging artwork may lead you to believe that W./E. is a sweeping romance about these two better-than-fiction characters, it is also—mostly?—the story of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a wealthy housewife named after Simpson who nurses a small obsession with her namesake.
While Simpson, as she is depicted in the movie (played by Andrea Riseborough), is peppery and full of life, Winthrop is despondent. Her husband William (Richard Coyle), is a respected doctor, the kind that inspires women to tell Winthrop how lucky she is for landing him as a husband. Yet he’s often spending late nights with his patients; she suspects him of cheating. Still, he has somehow compelled her to quit her job in preparation for full-time motherhood—yet he feels ambivalent about having a baby, something she clearly wants.
Winthrop’s only solace is to fantasize about the romance between Simpson and the prince, aided by an upcoming auction at Sotheby’s that she visits daily. She examines, touches, inspects every auction item. Director Madonna uses these objects to pivot between the two timelines in her film, story of Simpson in the mid-‘30s and Winthrop in the late ‘90s.
The jumps in time are not the only trick in Madonna’s directorial grab-bag. There’s a lot of moviemaking going on in W./E.. Madonna cuts a lot. She incorporates both 16 mm and Super 8 film. She pulls in tight on her subjects, honing in on faces, eyes, feet, and knicknacks with a not-so-steady steadicam. As the emotions get more and more heightened in the movie, the close-ups get closer, and the images shakier.
On top of all of those flourishes, she pans the camera constantly (usually as music swells in the background). In the one behind-the-scenes look included on the Blu-Ray—the sole extra feature, which lacks even a commentary—Madonna explains that her background in dance influenced her camera swirls and swoops, as she is inspired by “movement”. The intention definitely comes across, as she circles the camera around her subjects until it becomes almost dizzying.
Yet while the shooting style of the movie is very fluid, the look of the film also comes across as extremely stiff. Sure, half of the appeal of the movie is seeing Arianne Phillips’ costumes, especially with respect to Simpson, known for being a fashion plate in her day. (Phillips was nominated for an Oscar for her efforts.) But both Simpson and Winthrop are styled to within an inch of their lives. You never see errant locks of hair; their outfits are perfect. The extra feature included in the Blu-Ray notes that each woman has 30 to 40 costume changes throughout the film.
Their living quarters are similarly impeccably art-directed, thereby giving off the impression that no one actually lives in them. Madonna can move the camera as much as she wants—in the end, it still comes across like she’s filming carefully assembled magazine photo shoots.
This kind of orante filmmaking actually keep you at arm’s distance from the story. W./E. is supposedly a contrast of two marriages: a red-hot romance that proves unstoppable despite disapproval from the world at large, and a loveless union that looks so good on paper that the world insists it is right. Only half of that emotional narrative comes through. The frozen-stiff styling really communicates Winthrop’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Her apartment, and even the way she dresses, comes across as clinical.
On the other side, though, the constant flashbacks and Super 8 segments distract from the supposedly all-consuming passion between Wallis and Edward (James D’Arcy)—you see the filmmaking, and not the character. She’s all couture dresses and finger waves, and you never really get a sense of why he gave up everything to be with her.
Perhaps this problem is exacerbated by the amount of time that’s given to each main character. Wallis and Edward’s tale comes in brief scenes and flashbacks, little snapshots and slices of their relationship together. Perhaps Madonna figured that, since so many people are already familiar with the details of their history—it’s alluded to in The King’s Speech, after all—she didn’t need to spend as much time with them.
More attention is devoted to Winthrop and her failing marriage. Her storyline, by contrast, is moody and melodramatic. It doesn’t have the interesting period details (it’s easy to forget it takes place in 1998) or the fairytale romance. It gets bogged down in an odd narrative cul-de-sac where she needs to fly to Paris and lie to Mohamed Al-Fayed (Haluk Bilginer) about writing a book to get access to Simpson’s personal letters. It makes you wish you were in control of the juxtaposition button so you can leave Winthrop and switch back to the fun movie that’s taking place elsewhere.
When all of the details are are added up, W./E. is a lot like Winthrop’s marriage. It looks perfect from the outside, but once you’re in it, it’s just cold.