Madonna & Wallis Simpson
by Tavo Amador
Madonna's harshest critics would concede she's no quitter. For more than two decades, she's sought to replicate her success as a pop singer in movies. Most of her efforts have met with public indifference and critical derision. Her latest film venture is W.E., which she directed and co-wrote. The initials stand for Wallis Warfield Simpson and Edward VIII.
The film opens in Manhattan in 1998. Wally Winthrop (Abby Cornish), named for Mrs. Simpson (1896-1986), is obsessed with the twice-divorced American woman for whom the King of England abdicated the throne in 1936. They became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Wally's husband, William (Richard Coyle), is a wealthy, admired, prominent doctor. Their marriage seems ideal. It's not. She's desperate to get pregnant, he doesn't want children. He's controlling, verbally and physically abusive, unfaithful. Perhaps borrowing from Julie and Julia (2009), the film flashes back to comparable events in Wallis' (Andrea Riseborough) life. While living in Shanghai in 1924, her first husband, Win Spencer (Ryan Hayward), beat her, causing a miscarriage.
Wally attends Sotheby's April 1998 auction preview of the possessions of the Windsors, everything from clothes to the desk where he signed the Abdication letter to her fantastic jewels. Wally imagines London, 1931, where Wallis, now married to Ernest Simpson, is gaining a reputation as a witty hostess. Among their friends is Lady Thelma Furness (Katie McGrath), the married mistress of Edward, then Prince of Wales, known as David (James D'Arcy). She introduces the Simpsons to the popular, handsome, charming, intellectually lazy, seemingly empathetic prince, who appears touched by the Great Depression's widespread poverty. Other scenes show his growing infatuation for Mrs. Simpson, his delight in her flippant treatment of him, and his constant presence at her small flat, where the patient Ernest pretends to be delighted by his company.
As Wally slowly takes steps to leave William – helped by the unlikely romantic attentions of Evgeni (the handsome Oscar Isaac), a Sotheby's security guard – her actions are contrasted with the frantic events following the death of George V. David, now king, demands that Wallis become queen – but Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Geoffrey Palmer) adamantly refuses. Once the British populace learned of the royal romance, Wallis became the most detested woman in the empire. The turbulent months following his abdication before their wedding in France are chronicled with mounting excitement.
Wally, free of William, goes to Paris to meet wealthy Egyptian businessman Mohamad Al Fayad (Haluk Bilginer), owner of the Duchess' private letters, obtaining his permission to read them. They reveal that Wallis had pleaded with David not to abdicate and later lamented the difficulty they had in living "the greatest romance of the century." This inspires Wally to change her life.
The movie shows Wallis saddened by her inability to have a child by the Duke, ignoring her famous quip, "David isn't heir-conditioned." It suggests she was a pre-feminist martyr compelled to marry the irresponsible, irrationally besotted king. Her letters support that interpretation, but she wrote with eyes focused on posterity.
In reality, she expected to be queen and gambled that David's demands would be met. Thwarted, both had gone too far to stop. She had publicly humiliated her husband, and the king, rejecting the option of making her his morganatic wife, felt compelled to give up the throne. They became the darlings of international cafe society, leading empty lives. Despite their wealth, they were notoriously parsimonious with staff, but expected friends to shower them with lavish gifts. He financed her insatiable desire for expensive, bold jewelry. Yet she briefly considered divorcing him to marry openly gay Jimmy Woolworth Donahue, heir to the five-and-dime store fortune, but after a fight in a nightclub, they never spoke again.
The Windsors resided principally in Paris, in a beautiful, antiques-filled house in the Bois de Boulogne, for which they paid the French government one dollar annually. They also owned a rustic "mill" outside the capital. He visited his family in England regularly, but she didn't return until his 1972 funeral. She spent the last years of her long life comatose.
Historical caveats aside, the movie is lush, often riveting. Madonna gets fine performances from the largely unknown cast, especially from the dazzling Riseborough, whose resemblance to the real Wallis is uncanny. She superbly conveys her narcissism, superficial charm, elegance, and conflicted feelings as she plunges ever deeper into unknown waters. The Manhattan, London, and Paris locations are beautifully photographed by Hagen Bodanski. Arianne Phillips' costumes are perfect: Wallis epitomized chic . The sets are magnificent. Abel Korzeniowski's original score suggests Cole Porter, Xavier Cugat, and Irving Berlin without copying them. Like the Duchess herself, much of W.E. is style over substance, but it makes for a fascinating two hours.