REVIEW: “W.E.” (*1/2)

Posted by · 11:47 pm · September 1st, 2011

Venice Film Festival

There’s such a bounty of ripe absurdities in Madonna’s sophomore directorial effort “W.E.” — an over-the-spectacles glance at the supposedly for-the-ages romance of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, blending the story of “The King’s Speech,” the structure of “Julie & Julia,” the styling of “A Single Man” and the collected smarts of none of those films — that it seems positively ascetic to begin with the closing credits, but so I shall. Nestled in the final minute of a decidedly over-generous 120 comes the list of “Thank Yous,” upon which you may or may not be surprised to encounter the names John Galliano and Leni Reifenstahl (sic).

The names may be there for perfectly fair reasons. Galliano is a genius fashion designer, and Madonna’s film is nothing if not well-dressed. Riefenstahl was a genius metteur en scène, and Madonna’s film is nothing if not — well, perhaps she just likes Riefenstahl’s films, even if any claim of creative influence would be on the tenuous side. The irony of thanking two prominent alleged Nazi sympathizers, mere minutes after “W.E.” goes to manful if unconvincing lengths to discredit any suggestions that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had similar leanings, is incidental, and perhaps a little cheap to pick on, but merely one small symptom of Madonna the Auteur’s astonishing lack of self-awareness.

This is a film whose big showpiece sequence involves a Dexedrine-high Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) dancing manically with a Masai tribeswoman to that august royal anthem, the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” (Sofia Coppola, oddly enough, is one female filmmaker not thanked in the credits), while her fellow poshos gurn before her like the audience at the Baz Luhrmann-curated Moulin Rouge. If we are to glean any meaning at all from this fearlessly demented scene, it could be that Madonna has just realized that the upper classes can be shallow and materialistic — a pretty rich epiphany for a film in which the joy of nice things isn’t just implied by pornographically lingering shots of jewelery and La Perla underwear, but made into an active plot point.

This is a film, I wish to underline, where Abbie Cornish’s parallel character Wally — an unhappily married 21st-century auctioneer whose fixation with her historical namesake is viewed as poignant by Madonna, and mentally ill by any other rational person — spends $11,000 on a pair of gloves and is congratulated by the narrative for her independent-minded impulsiveness as if it’s a Suffragette-scale achievement. (If such an act doesn’t soften us to this cloistered trophy wife’s plight, the film reasons, the sight of her tearfully chucking thousands of dollars’ worth of IVF medication down the bathroom sink surely will.)

Madonna’s celebrity makes her an obvious target for kneejerk critical ridicule, but it should actually be an advantage when taking on a story about the private lives of people who enjoy no such luxury as a private life anymore. Indeed, the film’ most emotionally coherent, if still dramatically stunted, stretches are those which deal with Wallis and Edward’s burgeoning yet fearsomely scrutinized romance.

Aided immensely by the wardrobe and makeup departments, a hard-working Riseborough almost sells Simpson as a woman of some agency before being defeated by the punishing lack of human interest in Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian’s addled script: like Cornish’s utter vacuum of a character, acquainted principally with Simpson through repeated visits to a Sotheby’s exhibition of the couple’s memorabilia, the film defines (and ultimately covets) the woman chiefly in terms of the things she owns. (Simpson at least has enough common nous to tell Cornish’s moon-faced identity thief — in one of their occasional, embarrassing across-the-decades chats — to “get a life.”)

If this irredeemably silly, self-admiring ode to life, love and all the fabulous bed linens in between is to be enjoyed at all — and future camp-classic value should not be underestimated — it should be in the same purely aesthetic currency that the director appears most fascinated by her subject. It’s lusciously lensed by Hagen Bogdanski (“The Lives of Others”), even if Madonna has little rhythmic intuition as to how to edit this mood-board of beautiful shots together; Arianne Phillips’s costume design (chalk up this year’s annual awful but material-heavy Oscar nominee in the category) inventively merges opposing decades’ maxi- and minimalist schools of glamor into one tonally consistent runway show; Abel Korzeniowski’s plump score cribs so heavily from his work on “A Single Man” that you wonder why Madonna didn’t just hire Tom Ford to direct the whole film for her while she went on tour.

The film evidently aspires to the outsider success enjoyed by Ford’s 2009 arthouse hit (which also debuted on the Lido, an environment more sympathetic than most to the artistic jaunts of non-film glam gods), which proved that stylistic excess can still reap emotional rewards given a crisp narrative focus and heavyweight lead performance. (It also helps not to saddle actors with tell-don’t-show lines like, “I was a Russian intellectual, but now I’m slumming it as a security guard.”)

“W.E.” has neither of these things, but it has something at once more and less: the name of Madonna, which, as much as critical principle dictates otherwise, can’t help but provide a context for her fatuous film’s mile-long remove from reality, in which history and present alike seem to converge as one dazzling yet rigidly unmoving reflection of her own privilege. If she should thank any one name in the film’s closing credits, it may as well be her own.

[Photos: The Weinstein Company]

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34 responses so far

  • 1 9-02-2011 at 12:12 am

    Joel said...

    Guy. You’ve outdone yourself. This is a masterpiece of sarcasm and lovingly biting hatred. Almost makes me want to see it. *golf clap*

  • 2 9-02-2011 at 12:19 am

    Colin said...

    Having seen The King’s Speech, Julie & Julia and A Single Man, I daresay that charging W.E. with having none of their “collective smarts” is SUCH a burn. Ouch!

  • 3 9-02-2011 at 12:50 am

    Jim T said...

    Colin – Totally agree!

    Joel – I think too many people like “bad” Guy. He’s also good when he’s “good” ;)

    Guy, you must drink A LOT of coffe suring festivals. I could easily believe you write these reviews while hanging at your private island more months doing nothing else!

  • 4 9-02-2011 at 12:52 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    This is the meanest thing you’ve ever wrote.

  • 5 9-02-2011 at 1:03 am

    timr said...

    Yep, I’m psyched! Brilliant piece, which also manages to give the movie a remarkably fair shake, at least in identifying its incidental qualities. A savaging to sit proudly alongside your Tempest one from last year.

  • 6 9-02-2011 at 2:10 am

    Carol said...

    People, the guy is paid to be mean, its sort of a competition now, the meaner about Madonna in films, the more positive feedback you’ll get.

    Interesting is that test screenings have been very positive and proof that if Madonna’s name wasn’t attached to it, it WOULD be in the category of king’s speech and the like. Why do you think Weinstein is distributing this one?

    Don’t be an idiot. They sharpened their pens for weeks now, the good reviews judge the film and not its director. Interesting.

  • 7 9-02-2011 at 4:14 am

    may said...

    Did not know Abel Korzeniowski was scoring this. Why Abel? (Should have gotten the nod for ASM though.)

  • 8 9-02-2011 at 4:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    @Carol: Believe it or not, I’m not paid to be mean — I’m paid to offer sincere opinions and articulate them for your reading pleasure (or dismay). If I was strategising my reviews in such a manner, I’d much rather write a glowing one, since it’d stand out a little more from the growing pile of pans.

    I have no idea what Weinstein’s motivations are for distributing this one, but let’s not be so naive as to suggest he’s some inarguable guru in matters of cinematic worth. I look forward to engaging in debate with you when you see the film — and potentially appreciate it more than I do — but I’m not going to drawn into arguing with second-hand reports of test-screening responses.

  • 9 9-02-2011 at 4:49 am

    JFK said...

    Guy, while I agree with what I think you are trying to say behind an opaque curtain of witticisms and jabs, I think Riseborough deserves some credit here. As does Madonna for her seamless jumps through time, which I haven’t heard anyone comment on and seems undeniable to me.

  • 10 9-02-2011 at 4:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I think I have given her some credit in the review — I just don’t think the script gives her a real character to play, and the tricksy structure (you say “seamless”, I say “fuzzy”, let’s call the whole thing off) is partly to blame for that, I think.

  • 11 9-02-2011 at 5:51 am

    Eric Arvin said...

    I have to agree with Carol. From the reviews I’ve read, it feels as if critics – maybe not you, but some – were just waiting to pounce and use their witty little barbs to take shots at Madonna. Waiting for weeks. Salivating even. People have to be vicious to get read and that’s a shame.

  • 12 9-02-2011 at 5:56 am

    Bia said...

    I’m mainly interested in seeing this for the visuals, sort of like Marie-Antoinette. I just want to be transported somewhere fabulous.

  • 13 9-02-2011 at 6:14 am

    Andrej said...


    “if Madonna’s name wasn’t attached to it, it WOULD be in the category of king’s speech and the like. ”

    Without having seen W.E. I can’t assure it, but to me it doesn’t look like a movie which “makes you feel”, in the same way people (and TWC’s publicity department) thought of The King’s Speech.

    Having read Guy’s review, it strikes me as if Please Give’s materialism and emotionless upper class characters met the worse of Moulin Rouge’s production values. Cult classic film of 2011.

    Madonna or not, I wasn’t expecting much. Having The King’s Speech still fresh in my mind, I always thought this was a redundant project (or at least, a badly timed one).

  • 14 9-02-2011 at 6:39 am

    Marie said...

    That is because 3/4 of the reviews sound like a broken record, they are reviewing Madonna. ::rollseyes:: Not the movie. They are bashing this woman for what For who she is? Or the film? I really can’t tell with the majority of these reviews. With that, I think I may just go see it. I like the idea of the 2 different times(as someone already stated..NOT ONE REVIEWER is saying anything about this.

    I wish those other reviewers and this one, can get it out of their brains that this is NOT MADONNA, the musician, BUT Madonna , the DIRECTOR. I think they can’t separate the two.

    Geesh you would think someone intelligent would just give an honest opinion, but hell you can’t even get one review without half of the review bashing MADONNA, the know, the part of her that is so obvious that these reviewers do not like.

  • 15 9-02-2011 at 7:24 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I don’t mind Madonna the musician.

  • 16 9-02-2011 at 7:35 am

    refrag said...

    Who said “test screenings have been very positive”… Harvey? Because all the reports from June said the test screenings went badly and they had to re-cut.

    You can’t criticise reviewers for bringing Madonna the person into it when Madonna the brand is the reason she got money to make the film in the first place. If this had been okay I suspect she would have been over praised. It cuts both ways.

  • 17 9-02-2011 at 7:51 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Put it this way: two years ago at Venice, there was a lot of snide critical scepticism about Tom Ford’s debut — most assuming it would turn out to be some absurd vanity project — until it screened and convinced a number of critics that he is a promising filmmaker. Critics can certainly revel excessively in their bitchery, but they wouldn’t let work they actually believe in fall prey to that impulse.

  • 18 9-02-2011 at 7:55 am

    Will said...

    Well done, Guy.

    And people: if you haven’t seen it, what the hell do you know about who deserves credit or who was waiting to pounce on this one?

  • 19 9-02-2011 at 8:39 am

    Michael said...

    I seriously want to see this movie even more after reading your review. This sounds like the type of fabulously bloody train wreck that you have to see to believe.

  • 20 9-02-2011 at 10:14 am

    Maxim said...

    “The irony of thanking two prominent alleged Nazi sympathizers, mere minutes after “W.E.” goes to manful if unconvincing lengths to discredit any suggestions that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had similar leanings, is incidental, and perhaps a little cheap to pick on, but merely one small symptom of Madonna the Auteur’s astonishing lack of self-awareness.”

    I, too, was largely concerned that reviewers were going to pick on Madonna the public figure and were never really going to give her a fair chance, but, I cannot argue with what was stated above. This seems like a woefully wrongheaded decision on her part and not even the fact that they were women could explain them being listed in that credits section.

  • 21 9-02-2011 at 10:50 am

    timr said...

    @Maxim: John Galliano?

  • 22 9-02-2011 at 11:02 am

    Maxim said...

    Is not a man.

    Oh well. I’ve lost the narrative thread. … I’ve got to reshoot.

  • 23 9-02-2011 at 5:14 pm

    Paul Outlaw said...

    Is there no performance as supersized as Dunaway’s to give this film some Mommie Dearest heft?

  • 24 9-02-2011 at 6:37 pm

    Liz said...

    What are the odds of this movie getting a “Miral”-style bump to the doldrums of next spring? Surely the Weinsteins don’t want to have to work to deflect attention from this when they could be throwing all their efforts into promoting “The Artist.”

  • 25 9-02-2011 at 7:09 pm

    Glenn said...

    “…irredeemably silly, self-admiring ode to life, love and all the fabulous bed linens in between…”

    As a devout follower of Madonna the musician, I still loved this review. So funny and wry. This woman really shouldn’t be encouraged near cinema unless it’s “Truth or Dare” style documentaries (“Truth or Dare” being one of the greatest documentaries ever, naturally).

  • 26 9-02-2011 at 8:46 pm

    Jeannie said...

    I won’t judge the film till I see it but can I ask the reviewer? Is that the poster that is used in this article for w.e. , real?I always thought it was fan made.

  • 27 9-02-2011 at 11:11 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Jeannie: I assume it’s fan-made. The Weinsteins, I’m sure, will rustle up something more glam soon.

    Paul: Alas, no. The performances are all on the demure side.

  • 28 9-11-2011 at 10:52 am

    Janice said...

    For every bad review I would read a good review.
    Result: mixed
    A friend of mine saw the test in Chicago and she “loved” it.