Wednesday, February 08, 2012

In Defence of Madonna's W.E. (kind of)

I can't help feeling that Madonna's main problem is that she doesn't know how to rein it in (see her performance at the 2012 Superbowl final). W.E. is her second film as a director and has everything in it and by this I mean ever idea and whim that she has ever had. It is autobiographical and historic, stylistically all over the place, a thriller and a revisionist drama. But despite what the critics say it is definitely not one of the worst films ever made (as was suggested by Mark Kermonde on Radio 5 on 20.01.12), it is quite revealing and actually pretty entertaining. AN Wilson on Radio 4's Front Row had it about right - W.E. is about fairy tales and how they don't happen.

Abbie Cornish as Wally Winthrop in W.E.

Lots of reviews of W.E. are very scathing about the complex structure of the film which combines a modern day tale of a young woman with the unfortunate name Wally (named by a family who were for some unexplained reason Wallis lovers) with the historic story of the Duchess of Windsor. Maybe Madonna should have kept it simple a la The Kings Speech but personally I found the modern tale quite captivating and the history a little dull. Abbie Cornish who I loved in Jane Campion's Bright Star plays Wally. She has the most extraordinary big face which I find visually fascinating - it's gauche and sophisticated all at once. She is trapped in an unhappy relationship and this is where a flurry of what I suspect are autobiographical references come in. It appears that her British husband is unfaithful, she wants children, he doesn't and he leaves her alone much of the time. When she spends money at an auction buying some of Wallis Simpson's gloves he goes crazy. She gave up her career as an auction house assistant - which he thought was a silly job - to live her fantasy life of the much loved wife, now he controls her - he has the money and the power. There are some really pertinent points here which male critics fail to grasp - it doesn't matter how rich or poor you are this kind of scenario is being played out in the lives of women the world over. To escape from her life Wally daydreams and even talks to Wallis Simpson. This is pure Kilimnik - a woman escaping an abusive relationship by thinking herself into another life. Of course fairy tales do not come true and just as Wallis Simpson's dream life became a kind of gilded prison so does Wally's marriage. Mark Kermode has a problem with rich people moaning about their lives - but surely you can suffer emotionally whether you are rich or poor. 

Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in W.E.

Aside from the emotional heart of the film there are some great stylistic touches and as shallow as it may be I have to admit that the clothes are beautiful. On the downside too much of the film looks like fashion shoots or pop videos, a little more truth and a little less style would have helped the audience engage a little more. A scene of Wallis and Edward on the beach is self consciously lifted from Hoyningen-Huene's famous 1930 fashion image, another scene with numerous umbrellas is taken from Madonna's video for Rain directed by Mark Romanek. Oh and making the Queen Mum a major baddie was never going to go down well in the UK, however badly history has misrepresented poor Wallis. 


In a feature about this year's Oscar nominations in The Observer Bidisha noted that women have generally been overlooked with a general lack of award nominations for the likes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Wuthering Heights and Bridesmaids and she goes on to say 'guess what, Madonna's W.E. is a thousand times better than royal borefest The King's Snooze, in which a man spends two hours overcoming a speech impediment while Helena Bonham Carter looks on. W.E. actually has proper roles for women in it – and, sorry haters, Madonna can direct.'

Mrs Simpson and Edward as depicted in W.E.


JRFOXX said...

Thanks for this observation. I couldn't agree more...

Mike Bartlett said...

I shall watch the film now