It’s been called the greatest romance of the 20th century, the love affair between his Royal Highness Edward VIII of England and Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American. It’s a scandal that rocked the British Empire. No one believed that a man of Edward’s stature would be dating such a woman, something that became even more shocking when he chose to abdicate the throne for her, resulting in both of them being exiled. This is a story full of emotion and one that’s truly worthy of being told, which makes it a shame that Madonna was not up to the task with her film W.E.
It begins by showing us Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) in her first marriage to a brute of a man. This is quickly followed by her second marriage to Ernest (David Harbour), a much kinder man. Through an acquaintance, she is able to meet Prince Edward (James D’Arcy) and quickly forms a relationship with him that becomes closer and closer as the two spend more time together. It eventually gets to a point where the two are deeply in love, which only causes more problems when Edward’s father, George V, dies, making Edward the new king of the British Empire.
This story is intertwined with a present day tale of a woman, Wally Winthrope (Abbie Cornish), who is obsessed with the romance between Wallis and Edward. There is soon to be an auction at Sotheby’s for items that belonged to the two, but beforehand, there is an exhibition to show the items to the public. Wally attends this exhibition daily and starts to form a relationship with one of the security guards, Evgeni (Oscar Isaac). Wally’s marriage is currently not going very well. Her husband is rarely at home and she even suspects him of having an affair, which makes her slowly-forming relationship with Evgeni more and more welcome.
This is a fascinating subject for a film and one that we saw a little bit of in 2010’s best picture winner The King’s Speech. However, the main subject there had been Edward’s brother Bertie and his difficulty in unexpectedly ascending to the throne with a stuttering problem. With W.E., we get to concentrate on Edward and Wallis as they fall in love with each other.
While this should have made for a very emotional story, it turns out that’s exactly what’s missing from the film. Not once does it feel like these two actually feel anything for each other. I don’t think the actors are the ones to blame however. I believe this was more a problem of Madonna’s and Alek Keshishian’s screenplay not fleshing out these characters very well.
This was an extremely difficult time for both Edward and Wallis, and yet, the film makes it seem like it was a trivial decision for Edward to give up the throne of the British Empire for this woman he loved. There was obviously a lot of pressure put on him to decide between one or the other, but the film does not portray these pressures or the struggle to choose between his duty and his love for Wallis very well.
With this lack of emotion, the film becomes a rather long and tedious sit at nearly two hours. It certainly doesn’t help that it continually cuts away from what should have been an interesting story to bring us the modern day tale of Wally and Evgeni, a sidestory that adds absolutely nothing to the film. This merely ended up feeling like the real story was being interrupted over and over, something that became quite annoying after awhile.
Luckily, not everything in the film is quite so bad. The production design and the Academy Award-nominated costumes are quite beautiful and really help establish the period that the film is set. One of the things we learn from the special features is the incredible amount of research that was done for the film, which included the fashion of the period. At least that part of the research paid off well.
Speaking of research however, it’s rather hard to take a film seriously that makes as obvious an error as to refer to George V as George III. Even though most people might not know George V (Reigned 1910-1936) particularly well, just about everyone knows that George III was the king who ruled during the American Revolution. It made me wonder what other bits of history the film got wrong.
Turning to the Blu-Ray itself, the film is presented in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. The film looks amazing and allows all the detail that went into it to be shown beautifully. The 5.1 DTSHD-MA audio is crisp and clean, allowing every little sound to be heard clearly. Both the music and dialogue tracks are clear without either overpowering the other.
As for special features, the only one included is “The Making of W.E. Featuring Madonna,” a 22-minute featurette that includes interviews with the cast and crew of the film. As far as “Making of” featurettes go, this one is actually pretty good. As the title suggests, it features Madonna talking a lot about the preparation that went into the film. It also spends a lot of time with the cast as they talk about the different characters and their perceptions of them, as well as how great it was to work with Madonna as the director. It does get a little silly though when they try to say how amazing the screenplay was when it was actually one of the biggest problem with the film.
It is an interesting featurette and it does raise the score a little bit for the blu-ray overall, but it’s still not nearly enough to recommend buying it as the film is extremely lacking.
Overall, W.E. ends up being a missed opportunity. This is indeed an interesting story, but it deserves so much more than this. Hopefully, one day, someone will come along and attempt to tell this story again, but this time, investing it with the emotion that’s required to tell this incredible tale while cutting out the excess that had no business being there in the first place.
While Madonna's W.E. is beautiful to look at, it lacks the emotional depth necessary to tell this historically-fascinating tale.