Scandal in Madonna’s ‘W./E.’

Karl R. de Mesa
For her big budget directorial debut, The Material Girl does a meditation about women in romantic distress

WE THE UNWISE. Though full of passion play and the lushness of the 1930s, the beautiful scenes often bog down the narrative. All movie stills courtesy of the Weinstein Company

MANILA, Philippines – This isn’t Madonna’s first outing as a director. 

Nope, that credit goes to the nearly universally disparaged “Filth and Wisdom” of 2008, a musical dramedy about a cross-dressing Ukrainian immigrant that was so calamitous it went straight to a limited theatrical release and cable on demand. 

Looks like the stylistically titled “W./E.” doesn’t fare any better, though it does have ambition aplenty. In the story department alone, the material and the proposed narrative arc look very good on paper. 

“You have no idea how hard it is to live out the world’s greatest romance,” goes the pivotal line of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the woman of no great beauty that an English King stepped down from his throne for. 

In this film, I think the only apt reply is: you have no idea how tedious Madonna’s made what was considered the 20th century’s greatest scandal. 

The W and the E in the title alludes to Wallis Simpson and Edward (James D’Arcy), shorthand for one of the most disastrous scandals in British royal history. Which is to say, the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcée (twice divorced, mind you) of the 1930s.

That affair ended in the King abdicating his throne to his stuttering younger brother, who eventually becomes King George VI. 

In parallel to that is a romance between a married, battered woman named Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) and a Russian security guard named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) set in the late 1990s. 

DOOMED DIRECTION. Madonna relies more on flashy directorial style and neglects substance

Wally and Wallis. There’s a magical realism touch there, giving the two heroines almost the same name.

It’s clearly established that Wally is obsessed with the tale of Wallis and Edward. She haunts the Sotheby’s display of their estate, goes home to an alcoholic husband who wilts whenever they get in bed and is driven almost to madness by her inability to conceive a child — she’s one hormone ampoule away from going over the edge.      

As Wallis’ research draws her further into the romance of W and E, she discovers that the couple’s life together was not as perfect as she first thought.

Through the eyes of Wallis and Wally, the film flits back and forth in time, as the latter tracks the story of the royal couple, from the glamorous early days to the downward spiral post-abdication. 

Sounds great, right? What could be so bad about a movie that’s got sex, booze and a King leaving his throne for the commoner he loves? 

Wrong. When it was released in the US and the UK in 2011, this thing failed to bring home the box office. It also got a near-universal thumbs down from critics. 

It’s easy to see why. Madonna falls prey to the curse afflicting nearly every rookie director: a fascination for putting every visual trick and the kitchen sink into employ without service to story. 

Perhaps part of the fault lies with her screenplay co-writer Alek Keshishian (who previously did her 1991 documentary “Truth or Dare, In Bed with Madonna” and two of her music videos). The story has so much fat, you could ask your Italian butcher to slice it for you easily, and rest content that the first 30-35 minutes could have been left on the cutting room floor. 

WOMEN IN LOVE. Oscar Isaacs and Abby Cornish play the modern-day parallel of an unusual, intense affair

Really, what bogs down everything is the pell mell direction.

Granted, most of these scenes are beautiful and artsily composed, but as much as we’d like to give the Material Girl the benefit of the doubt, the overuse of the “NYPD Blue” style shaky cam, the sudden changes to black and white and then back to color in the space of 3 seconds, the soft focus frolics and segues, are as unforgiveable and cliché as pointy cones on a bra. 

A vestigial glam; pretty, shallow, signifying nothing.   

Sure, there are great moments of levity here, especially when the courtship between Wally and Evgeni begin in earnest.

There’s male mooning (for the ladies), instances of full frontal splendor (for the boys) and funny, touching, moments that are the hallmark of dating’s early stages. I loved those scenes. But I can’t help but notice how they’re marred by Abby Cornish’s tendency to overact as if she was in a TV soap instead of the big screen.  

Are these art house tactics preferred by female directors? Sure, but “W./E.” never comports itself as a modest indie movie; instead revelling in its big budget Hollywood-ism with an A-list cast (watch out for a cameo of Natalie Dormer as the future Queen Elizabeth) and on location filming in the UK, France,  Italy and the US. 

Though Madonna’s film is full of estrogen and pathos — great fashion that clothes even strong passions — it’s the feminine touch of a dilettante who somehow can’t make heads or tails of the directorial craft to make a coherent enough statement in a movie that already clocks in at nearly two hours long.  

At some point in this prosaic, “New Yorker” style that meanders and winds, I asked myself if I was suffering so much from the viewing because I had balls instead of breasts. But the women at the media premiere were also shifting restlessly in their seats. 

ROYAL DALLIANCE. Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy bring the scandalous Brit royal and his commoner mistress to life

Afterwards, I asked my fashionista better half whether she was as annoyed and bored as I was. “Hell yeah,” she replied.   

Though “W./E.” will appeal to women who like their narrative done in impressionistic colors, you may want to steer clear of this one unless you really like the style and clothes of the 1940s, or you have a thing for Abby Cornish in her knickers. – 

Watch the trailer of “W./E.” here:


“W./E.” is screening exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas (Glorietta 4, Greenbelt 3 and TriNoma).

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