Madonna’s elegant ballad “Masterpiece” plays over the closing credits of W.E., and hearing it after watching the singer’s second effort at directing and co-writing a feature film (following 2008’s little-seen Filth and Wisdom) makes it quite clear where her talents lie. The Golden Globe-winning “Masterpiece,” which obliquely references the themes of the movie, would probably have made for a very stylish, impressionistic music video briefly exploring the story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII of England. The film about that same story, however, takes the superficiality of a three-minute music video and spreads it across an entire feature, focusing entirely on glossy surfaces while failing to provide any meaningful character development or interesting dialogue.
Madonna frames the story of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D’Arcy), whose marriage in 1937 was the impetus behind Edward abdicating the throne, with a modern-day story set in 1998, about unhappy housewife Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) and her very slow-moving romance with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac) who works at Sotheby’s auction house. That’s where many of Wallis and Edward’s possessions are being auctioned off, providing a chance for Wally to engage in reveries that flash back to moments in the couple’s turbulent courtship.
Wally herself is dealing with an unhappy marriage to a cruel doctor (Richard Coyle), but the reason for her strong feeling of connection to Wallis and Edward is never quite clear. All of the main characters are little more than beautifully dressed pawns to maneuver around the admittedly lovely sets and locations. Madonna relies on showy, distracting camera work and an overbearing score to distract from the terrible, exposition-heavy screenplay (which she co-wrote with Truth or Dare director Alek Keshishian), and the result resembles a magazine fashion spread more than a movie. That could be the perfect approach for a pop music video, but it doesn’t do justice to the sweeping story Madonna’s trying to tell.