“I’m not sentimental – I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last – the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, “This Side of Paradise” (1920)

Ah, the life of the rich and privileged. The disillusionment and downfall of the tragic socialite is the tabloid’s kryptonite, and the public consume it just as greedily in vicarious sympathy. Apparently, so does Madonna, as evidenced by her revisionist take on the utterly hyperbolised scandal of Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. One cannot help feel that Madonna feels more than an empathic kinship with Wallis, supported by the decision to create a parallel story in present-day Manhattan that is in shambles from the beginning (both figuratively and literally). As a film, W.E.has all all the direction and purpose of a beached whale, meandering and dragging on for far too long. Aside from a few exceptions, it is by all means a pointless and fruitful endeavour in film, no doubt leaving anyone wondering, “….but why?”

Embracing frugality in its fullest essence, it is certainly an ambitious film, and nowhere does this point come across stronger than its striking aesthetic. It is stunningly meticulous in its attention to detail without appearing self-conscious. The 1930s era, all bold excess and exotic extravagance like a Lempicka painting is contrasted beautifully with the dark and elegant muted tones of the present day, both in  art direction and costume design. However, in the midst of pre-war glamour, stands Andrea Riseborough triumphantly. It is her performance which makes an otherwise wasted exercise in music video direction utterly worth watching. She inhabits the part of Wallis Simpson utterly, from a haughty turn of the head or self-possessed stride, immersed in the role without emerging as an attempt at impersonation.

Note the aforementioned emphasis on style – if you were seeking more substance, I am afraid disappointment is imminent. For all its obsession with emotional neglect and loneliness, W.E. is (perhaps suitably) completely devoid of emotional content. It awkwardly straddles the line between misguided fairytale and childish petulance about the burden of wealth. The latter portion of the film is an embarrassingly transparent spotlight on the misunderstood and villainised icon, and said icon’s due for recognition of sacrifice. The perpetual superficiality and obsession with surface beauty tarnishes any emotional depth the film may have achieved, punctuated by a wooden and affectless performance from Abbie Cornish, and her character’s tenuous fascination with Wallis. The crowning disaster is the screenplay itself: laughably appalling dialogue, predictable caricatures, awkward cross-era scenes, and a complete disconnect from reality (a Russian intellectual virtuoso working as a security guard at Sotheby’s? Really?).

Despite its nearly universal vapidity, there is a striking scene in which Wallis, Edward, and their guests dance to drunken excess, anachronistically accompanied by the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”.  It is the most (and perhaps only) interesting directorial choice made in the entire film; it is only unfortunate that the director failed to see the irony in it.

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