Starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy, James Fox, Oscar Isaac
Before last week's Super Bowl, before the forthcoming world tour, Madge - as she's still affectionately known in her former adopted home of England - was focused on a big-screen comeback, and as a director, no less.
Forget the little-seen shorter effort (2008's Filth and Wisdom). Given its dismissal, this fresh assault was plugged as being the real deal. Her former husband Guy Richie's Swept Away - her cinematic nadir - would be a very distant memory. Things would be different this time around. To up the ante, Madonna went for broke, unveiling W.E. on a grand scale: at the opening night of the world's oldest film festival, in Venice, last September.
A love story based on Britain's disgraced King Edward VIII, subsequently the Duke of Windsor, and his divorcee bride Wallis Simpson, paralleled with a 1990s Wallis-obsessed socialite named Wally, was the game changer. The world waited with bated breath. Italy went bananas.
Alas, despite its bold if bizarre remit, W.E. proves to be indeed a stinker. The past and near-present narratives - which shift awkwardly between a wily Wallis (Riseborough) and her unhappy New York-based number-one fan Wally (Cornish) - appear to tackle every cinematic shot in the book, almost craving credibility. Madonna has clearly paid attention in class. Now it's as if every section of that text book must be displayed, for the purposes of the naysayers.
There's no doubting the lady's ambition. Cornish said as much to me early last year ("If she puts her mind to something, it'll actually exist"). The problem is, aside from the ticking of the camera tricks off the list, the story makes little sense.
Was Wallis Simpson as horrifically self-centered as she appears here? Apparently not. We know that she and Edward were party types, with little interest in running pre-Second World War England (as played out here). Their wooing by Hitler appears to have been more na´vetÚ on their part than a thirst for power.
That doesn't stop Wallis appearing as a ghost, ostensibly to pursue Wally when she decides that she, too, has had enough of a miserable marriage (Wallis's first husband was abusive, Wally's husband is a rotter). The two are connected by name (Wally named after Wallis), with the 1930s royal scandal, apparently, a great love affair of the last century. At least, from an American tourist's point of view.
Madonna, for all her faults, cast this self-funded feature (made for a reported US$15 million (Dh55m), with uncharacteristic cinematic poise. Riseborough, in particular, is excellent as the wicked Wallis. Were the character even vaguely believable, with a coherent narrative in place, she could have carried the film admirably.
Cornish, too, does a respectable job but, again, her Wally is so far removed from reality that her Wallis obsession soon descends into farce. And what on earth was poor Oscar Isaac thinking, of playing the fawning museum guard at Wally's beck and call, as she tries on Simpson's finest jewels? After nearly two hours of a tepid, wandering narrative, closing time does not come soon enough.
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