Royal Pain

In a poor turn as director, Madonna tells the story of the American divorcée who stole the heart of a king

They split in 2008, but apparently Madonna stayed married to director Guy Ritchie just long enough to absorb his most grating cinematic instincts—shooting in every style, in an addled, shuffle-mode, falsely glamorizing way until all is chaos. And, astonishingly, boredom.

Madonna’s second feature as director, W.E., turns the monarchy love fest The King’s Speech on its side, focusing on the much-maligned Baltimore socialite Wallis Simpson. This was the woman—the harlot, as she was pigeonholed by the world press—who conquered the heart and loins of King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy, a well-dressed cipher), leading to his late-1936 abdication of the throne for love.

Fatally, the script by Madonna and her Truth or Dare collaborator Alek Keshishian establishes a parallel story set in late ’90s Manhattan. A former Sotheby’s auction house employee (portrayed by Abbie Cornish) has quit her job at the request of her successful but awful husband. She’s going through in vitro fertilization pregnancy treatments, more or less on her own. This woman, called Wally Winthrop, obsesses over the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their effects that have come up for auction. With her inky-black hair, imperious air and tormented personal life, Wally becomes a bookend to the infamous woman after whom she was named.

Andrea Riseborough portrays the Duchess, a.k.a. Wallis. Like Cornish’s character, she has been made up and photographed to resemble 1988-era Madonna as closely as possible. To be sure, this is a seriously intentioned picture, not a vanity project.

It is also seriously wrongheaded. W.E. trips all over its own ungainly storyline, and placing Wallis’ fairy tale inside the story of another, lesser, fictional unhappy princess diary does neither narrative track a favor. Madonna romanticizes the trappings and finery of royalty something fierce. The result is that when the suffocating cost of all that crystal and champagne and callousness is revealed, it comes off as hypocritical in the extreme.

Riseborough is perfectly capable of bringing Wallis to dramatic life, but she’s working alone. And the director’s sporadic attempts at deliberate anachronism (at one point, a drunken party is scored to “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols) come off as affectation.

Madonna has acknowledged working through lots of tangled feelings about marrying into British showbiz royalty (kind of) when she made W.E.

For decades, the world’s most durable self-recycling celebrity has learned plenty about the grind and the fickleness of the spotlight. But Madonna as a director has no discernible idea of how to locate a tone, or a provocative blend of tones. Her camera makes circles around its subjects every chance it gets in ways that evoke—nothing. What a bittersweet waltz it all is! Aren’t these people awful? Aren’t they fabulous? Really they’re neither in W.E., which in its shrillness ends up, quite inadvertently, advocating the notion of suffering in silence.

W.E. (R) ★☆☆☆☆

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