Tuesday 17 January 2012

Less than immaculate: "W.E."

If W.E., the latest demonstration that Madonna Louise Ciccone is as vital a presence behind a camera as she is in front of it, were a Madonna song, which Madonna song would it be? It almost certainly wouldn't be something from her early years as a pop icon - no "Borderline", no "Lucky Star", no "Into the Groove" - because these formative musical works were short, full of energy, had their own unarguable internal logic and, some 25 years later, stand as masterpieces of a sort. Actually, I doubt it'd be one of Madge's originals at all, more likely a cover version: given that the singer's directorial debut Filth and Wisdom died a (reportedly merciful) death on the festival circuit, perhaps the only way Madonna could secure distribution for any follow-up in the present climate would be if it featured characters previously seen in The King's Speech.

There are elements of The Hours in W.E., too, not least in its very Glass-y score and attempt to set very different eras in conversation with one another, but the earlier film had Michael Cunningham and David Hare putting words in its characters' mouths; this, by comparison, has Madonna herself and - a bizarre pop-culture recall - Alek Keshishian, who directed In Bed with Madonna at the height of his employer's primary career. So, in one sense, this is the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), introduced being kicked naked around the bathroom floor by her abusive first husband, and thereafter rising to prominence as the scandalising consort of Edward VIII (James d'Arcy); but, for some reason, Madge and Alek also set up facile parallels between this life and the life of the unfortunately named (and wholly fictional) Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) in 1990s Manhattan.

This Wally - told you that name was unfortunate - spends her days moping about Sotheby's, loking at the Wallis memorabilia being displayed in little glass cases, and her nights pondering IVF treatment and drifting apart from her own abusive husband (Richard Coyle, a.k.a. Jeff from Coupling). Wally is stalked around the auction house by a Russian security guard named, with crushing tediousness, Evgeniy (W.E., geddit?), who puts on a kilt at a key stage and opens up the display cases so that Wally can wear Wallis's necklaces, the idea presumably being that the younger woman needs LIBERATING, in this case by spending thousands of dollars on her predecessor's jewellery, which rather sets the film against the prevailing mood of cautious austerity. (But then, when has Madonna ever really been part of our world?)

The period scenes - attentively designed and dressed - are themselves undermined by a recurring note of self-mythology familiar from the writer-director's Dita Parlo/Sex phase, as though this half of the film weren't really about Wallis at all, but Dame Madge of Yonkers herself: a STRONG woman, surrounded by weak or abusive men, who doesn't let A COLD keep her from putting on a show for the King, and subsequently SHAKES UP the Establishment by, erm, spiking the drinks at an afternoon tea party with Benzedrine. CAUSING A COMMOTION! Yeah! In a display of extreme directorial cluelessness, the latter scene, in which Wallis is observed grooving with an African tribesman (black people as totems of cultural authenticity! Yeah!), is rather unfortunately scored to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant", offering a surely unintended critique of everything W.E. elsewhere seeks to celebrate about its party-girl heroine.

You'd call such tactics idiosyncratic, were they not chiefly disastrous in their sabotaging of any potential unities of time and place; individual scenes arrive stamped with a "Paris, 1936" or "New York, 1996", but these labels seem there as much for the confused director's sake as they are for our own, and there's never any progression in or between them. Increasingly, W.E. comes to resemble a stylistic grab-bag typical of Madonna's ill-fated Nineties-Noughties excursions into dance music: you'd hope the film could be reclaimed as camp or kitsch, because God knows it hasn't a hope of receiving any legitimate praise. Jaunty French chansons come to be layered over scenes of Wallis walking down a London street; a crisis in the Edward-Wallis relationship is signalled by having the couple run round and round a tree, like schoolchildren. Occasionally, Madge busts out the same unfocused wobblycam utilised in her "Justify My Love"-era videos, where it could only annoy or distract you for three or four minutes at a time.

Generally, she settles for a kind of tawdry advert chic, with the emphasis on Wallis and Wally's "classy" underwear: once a material girl, always a material girl. The acting, ironically, is mostly stuffed shirts, with the exception of Wallis and Edward, whose courtship is conducted after the fashion of screwball comedy, because they're dead modern and that. "You certainly know the way to a woman's heart," Wallis purrs to her beau after he's handed her a cuppa. (Cups of tea! England! Yeah!) "I wasn't aiming that high," is the sometime King's response. Elsewhere, lines of the calibre of "Your Highness, what is your impression of South Wales?" and "Mister Al-Fayed, I completely respect everything that you've said" only suggest why Madonna was never allowed to write her own lyrics until her icon status was more or less set in stone.

You don't know where to begin or end with W.E., in part because you're convinced its director didn't have much of an idea, either. The script is full of jokes that just aren't funny; the scenes in Sotheby's could only have been assembled by someone who's phoned in all her bids from home, or had her people phone them in; and while the film is a marginal improvement on Swept Away or Body of Evidence as a feminist text - Riseborough and Cornish strive to bring substantive notes to non-characters - these women are defined chiefly by their (bad) relationship choices, their wombs, and the camisoles they choose to put over them: the attempt to address Women's Issues, then as now, is less appreciable than that one might find between the pages of Take a Break magazine. W.E. is well-produced, certainly - expensive enough on a scene-by-scene basis to be mistaken for something of significance, rather than the vapid vanity project it is - but it's long, hopelessly dreary, and no more meant, or convincing, than any other of the collection of poses its driving creative force has struck over the years. If W.E. were a Madonna song, it'd be "American Pie".

W.E. opens nationwide from Friday.

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