Monday, October 24, 2011

London Film Fest 2011 Day 13 - W.E.

It would be all too easy to write off W.E.  - a biopic of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII - as a self-financed vanity project from Madonna, a highly successful musician who has serially failed to translate that success to celluloid.  However, if one is able to forget who has directed the film, and review it on its own merits, a far more nuanced and fair-minded discussion can ensue.  Because, much to my surprise, W.E. is a beautifully photographed, acted, and directed film, let down only by the concept of intertwining the story we all care about with the story of a modern bored housewife called Wally Winthrop.  This unnecessary, unenlightening contemporary drama frustrates us - it comes off as an hour long PR stunt for Sotheby's New York - and takes precious time away from Andrea Riseborough's charismatic and sympathetic portrayal of Wallace Simpson.  If this movie had just had the courage to stick to the source material, it could've been truly great.

The contemporary story is bland and predictable.  Abbie Cornish plays the bored and abused houswife of a financially successful but cheating husband.  She obsessively visits an exhibition of Wallace Simpson's personal artefacts, envisioning Wallace's life and desperate to know what it feels like to be loved that much.  It is a "way in" to the story that is completely unnecessary and not helped by a completely cliched "rich woman meets poor man with a soul" love story between Wally and the security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).  

The Wallace Simpson-King Edward story is told in a far more balanced and sympathetic manner than most retellings.  Madonna briefly and deftly essays her unhappy first marriage in Shanghai, with a powerful bathroom scene.  Wallace (Riseborough) then turns up in London, breaks into the royal circle, and we see her evident intelligence and wit win over the less impressive but again, sympathetically portrayed, King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy).  Once again, with elegance and economy, Madonna shows Wallace's talents for throwing parties, refusing to pander to the King - her complete understanding of her own limitations and attractions - and her foreboding at the life she would lead post-abdication.  She does not come across as grasping or materialistic but as a vibrant woman hoist by her love affair -  a truly tragic tale. These scenes beautifully portray her dilemma, and give the low budget of the film, are stunningly well produced.  The costumes, hair, the very look of that era is brilliantly captured, and DP Hagen Bogdanski (THE YOUNG VICTORIA, THE LIVES OF OTHERS) captures the crisp light of the Cote d'Azur as well as the dank, claustrophobic interiors of the royal palaces.  In the supporting roles, Natalie Dormer is particularly waspish as the jealous and manipulative future Queen Mother. I wanted to spend far more time in this story, and particularly to know more about Wallace's life post-abdication.  But sadly, that was not to be.

Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson); Madonna (Writer-Director) and 
James D'Arcy (King Edward VIII)at the UK premiere of W.E. 
at the BFI London Film Festival 2011.

W.E. played Venice, Toronto, Hollywood (where Andrea Riseborough won the Spotlight Award) and London 2011. It will be released in the US on December 9th; in the Netherlands on December 22nd; in the UK on January 20th and in Sweden on March 16th.

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