‘W/E’: Madonna goes arthouse, with dull results

  • Thu Feb 9th, 2012 8:49am
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

The entertainment conglomerate known as Madonna has always had a canny ear for music that will tap the popular mood; you don’t become a superstar without that talent.

So why is it, when she came to direct a movie, Madonna went all arthouse on us? Her movie “W./E.” looks like something made by a European auteur, or at least a wannabe film-school graduate trying to make a splash.

In tackling the allegedly grand love story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Madonna might’ve made a straightforward Anglo-period picture, full of fabulous dresses and handsome drapery. Instead, she plays those scenes against a modern tale of a woman who finds herself stuck in an unhappy marriage while fantasizing about the doomed royal romance.

The setup is interesting; the movie is not.

The 1930s is the setting for the debatable “love story of the century,” which saw the Prince of Wales (played by James D’Arcy) gadding about with a woman who was not only married and previously divorced, but also — horrors! — American. When he becomes king in 1936, he must choose between the crown and his girlfriend.

And if you saw “The King’s Speech,” you probably remember how that came out. Speaking of which, it’s slightly disconcerting to meet Edward’s brother in “W./E.” and find him not played by Colin Firth.

Wallis Simpson, the notorious American divorcee, is played by Andrea Riseborough, lately seen in “Brighton Rock.” If there’s a reason to see “W./E.”, it’s for Riseborough’s electric performance. In any movie about Mrs. Simpson, we must be convinced the lady would be intriguing enough to bring an empire to its knees; Riseborough succeeds.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s parallel story, a New Yorker (Abbie Cornish, from “Bright Star”) stares for hours at the artifacts formerly owned by W.E. (that’s Wallis and Edward, in their shared signature), on auction at Sotheby’s.

In a murky and profoundly uninteresting way, her own marriage problems bring her to the attention of a security guard (Oscar Isaac) at Sotheby’s.

The way the parallel stories come together is both pretentious and bloodless. You can imagine the interest Madonna would have in Wallis Simpson, as they share a global notoriety, but the passion’s not on the screen.

Madonna’s occasional stabs at directorial flair are mostly fumbled. Playing the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” over a scene of Wallis doing the Charleston might have been marginally passable (Sofia Coppola did similar things in “Marie Antoinette”) if it weren’t for how the lyrics land with a heavy-handed thud when used like this.

Just about the only unusual aspect of the movie is that Madonna wants so much to be an artiste, she’s made a film that’s too arty for the “Downton Abbey” crowd, and too trashy for the arthouse. Fortunately, she’s got a day job, and many a halftime show yet to perform.

“W./E.” (1½ stars)

Madonna directs this arty story of the notorious romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, which runs parallel to the drama of a modern woman (Abbie Cornish) and her own domestic problems. Except for the electric performance by Andrea Riseborough as Wallis, not much clicks here, and even the period trappings are mostly dull.

Rated: R for nudity, violence.

Showing: Pacific Place, Seven Gables.