W.E. begins without revealing credits. There is nothing to tell us that this is a movie written and directed by Madonna, yet she infuses every foot of the film reel with her uncanny eye for the minutiae of stylistic detail. Blending historical accuracy with her own artistic interpretation of how Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII's romance played out, Madonna successfully manages to tell one of the most controversial stories of the twentieth century. With such pressure to diplomatically portray Wallis and Edward, W.E. is very much a reflection of how far the pop star has come since her first feature in 2008, entitled Filth and Wisdom.
Deliberately constructed as a parallel between Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and a reluctant modern day housewife named Wally (Abbie Cornish), Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian (famed for directing Madonna's 1991 rockumentary, Truth or Dare) set one aspect of the story in 1998 Manhattan while alternating back and forth between the romantic plights of both women. The concept is a unique approach to the conventional biopic in its two-pronged affectation. Wally's strong connection to and obsession with Wallis is not coincidental as her mother and grandmother both had a similar fascination (hence her very similar name to Wallis'). But Wally finds increasing comfort in Edward and Wallis' story as her marriage to a callous Upper East Side psychiatrist deteriorates.
When Sotheby's announces its auction of the Duke and Duchess' personal possessions, Wally finds herself visiting the collection each day. It is there that she strikes up a friendship with a Russian security guard named Evgeni (Drive's Oscar Isaac). As the two grow closer, Wally becomes even more aware of the pronounced disparateness between her and her husband, William (Richard Coyle). His unwillingness to spend time with her, his blatant flirtations with other women, and his hesitancy to have a child send Wally into a deep depression that only Wallis can seem to assuage.
While W.E. has its emotional moments, there are times when that emotion can border on the bathetic side, but Madonna always reins it in with a comical or visually stunning moment to temper her occasional Lifetime leanings. For those who take issue with the surreal, the appearance of Wallis in Wally's apartment and on a park bench in Central Park might cause balking, but when considering the full-fledged fixation Wally has with the Duchess of Windsor, these particular scenes don't seem all that shocking.
Madonna's intensive research of the part royal, part socialite couple pays off tangibly in the film in that Wallis is conveyed as a charming and sympathetic character. During her lifetime, however, she was vilified and even accused of witchery (how else could she have gotten Edward to abdicate his throne?). The topic of Edward and Wallis' alleged ties to the Nazi party is another aspect that Madonna was unafraid to tackle, addressing it several times throughout the movie, including their tour of Germany and meeting with Adolf Hitler.
The main problematic issue with W.E. occurs toward its conclusion. The third act feels slow and uncertain of a direction as Wally travels to Paris to read Wallis' private letters from the collection of Mohamed Al-Fayed. After a bit of teeth-pulling, Wally is allowed access to them. One tormented line from Wallis especially stands out in this scene: "You have no idea how hard it is to live out the greatest romance of the century." Because of the sacrifice Edward made for her, Wallis is, to paraphrase, incarcerated in a prison that used to be occupied by Edward when he felt the pressure of being king without her by his side.
In addition to the serious tone that persists for most of the film, Madonna also shows a playful side to the maligned couple. Taking a page from Sofia Coppola's directorial handbook, Madonna uses the anachronistic technique of playing The Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" after Edward laces all of their guests' drinks with Benzedrine and then asks Wallis to dance for them. This scene comes full circle when the story jumps ahead to 1972--the year of Edward's death--and Wallis is asked to dance for him again (only this time to the already in existence song, "The Twist" by Chubby Checker).
Regardless of some of the film's weaker points, it is evident that Madonna has talent as a director (was it all those years spent married to Guy Ritchie?). And so, even if the box office revenue does not reflect it, Madonna does have a place in the film industry. To borrow a line from the movie in which Wally explains her enthrallment with Wallis: "The whole world turned against her, but she never backed down." It's an utterance that could have been extracted from Madonna's own biography.