W./E. Starring Andrea Riseborough, Abbie Cornish, James McAvoy. Directed by Madonna. Rated MA 15+ (Strong coarse language and violence). 119 mins.
The fact that W./E. was given very little cinema release raises the question about hostility – to Madonna who co-wrote and directed the film and/or to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Never liked much in Britain, especially at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson received short shrift in The King’s Speech. However, this is an attempt to look at her more favourably, which succeeds in part in giving a more human face to the Duchess and giving the audience something of a look behind the scenes at the Duke of Windsor.
However, it is not a biography. Rather, it is a portrait, as seen by the writers through a character they have created in a parallel story, set in New York City in 1998, at the time of Sotheby’s auction of the Duchess’ memorabilia. She died in 1986, the Duke in 1972 (and they are buried together in Windsor Castle, where she was not welcome during her life).
Abbie Cornish plays a wealthy socialite with a well-respected doctor husband who is, however, unfaithful to her and physically brutal. Her mother had called her Wallis after the Duchess and the 1990s Wallis becomes more obsessed with her namesake, spending much time at the Sotheby’s pre-auction exhibition and moping around the city. She is befriended by a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac) and persuaded to buy a pair of the Duchess’ gloves – for $10,000. Her being presented as one of the spoilt and idle rich with this kind of glove money does not quite endear her to ordinary audiences for whom this extravagance would be a dream.
The more interesting part of the film is the portrait of Wallis Simpson which is intercut with the New York story (1990s Wallis dreaming or fantasizing about meeting the Duchess, who actually takes a dim view of Wallis, snapping at her to get a life).
There is a difficulty (unnecessary?) in the flashbacks insofar as they are not in chronological order and run the danger of confusion for those not familiar with the dates and places. However, it is Andrea Riseborough’s excellently nuanced performance that makes the film worth seeing. Andrea Riseborough in recent films has played the mousy Rose in Brighton Rock and an IRA killer in Shadow Dancer. She can immerse herself in a role, roles that are quite diverse. James McAvoy is, as an American commentator refers to him after the abdication, Mr David Windsor. He is sympathetic but the film indicates that he was prone to some profligacy in his relationships and the high life. As in The King’s Speech, George V (James Fox) and Queen Mary (Judy Parfitt) comes across as cold and imperious. Laurence Fox (James Fox’s son) is the stammering Bertie. This time the Queen Mother to be comes across as moralistically hostile to Wallis.
Wallis’ first husband was a brute (we see scenes in the 1920s in Shanghai), whereas Ernest Simpson, her second husband, is a gentleman who loves his wife. It is she who turns to the Prince of Wales, basking in his friendship, and who gives up her husband. The political atmosphere of the abdication is portrayed well and the abdication speech itself (very well-written) is moving. Then it dawns on Wallis that she has lost her freedom and will forever be yoked to her husband and suffer hostility and humiliations. There
is, in recompense, a scene in 1972 where the Duke is dying and asks his wife to dance for him. They had been together for almost forty years.
Wallis, in 1998, has a sequence where she goes to Paris to ask Mohamad Al-Fayad, who owns the Duchess’ private letter collection, if she can read them. What is Madonna suggesting about Diana and Dodi Al-ayad and the Windsors?
So, the film is not without interest, especially in the scenes of the past, and an opportunity to think again about the abdication and what brought it about and the consequences. The New York story has some poignant moments but is far less interesting than the past.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 3 2012.