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Monday, February 20, 2012

To start by answering the only question most people probably care about very much: Arianne Phillips's costumes in W./E. are pretty great, all right. Oscar-worthy? That I cannot say. It is not the worst of the five nominees for the 2011 Best Costume Design Oscar, that much is certain.

The second question: yes, it's W./E. just exactly like that. I, for one, had been lulled into thinking it was just the nice, sane, visually unexceptional W.E. but when you actually get into the movie, there is no mistaking it. They stress the hell out of that slash; it appears before the W or the E slide out to the sides of it, and it remains after they have slid back. W./E. then, which is a most ungainly collage of characters and punctuation marks, but memorable, at least.

It is in this respect the ideal title for a movie that is also an ungainly collage, perhaps not so memorable. As you likely know - for W./E. is the platonic ideal of a movie that is known, discussed, and ridiculed by far more people than will ever see it - the film is writer-director Madonna's take on the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward VIII of England (James D'Arcy); the American divorcée and the British monarch who fell in love, precipitating a constitutional crisis that only resolved itself when Edward abdicated in December, 1936, after 11 months on the throne; this resulted in Colin Firth pretending to stutter for two hours.

But no! That is not really the plot of W./E. at all, which instead largely focuses on New York in 1998, where late-twentysomething Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), named for Wallis Simpson, endures a strained marriage to wealthy psychiatrist William Winthrop (Richard Coyle), who would rather work late nights possibly having an affair and definitely doing charity work than make a baby with his wife. This frustrates her, given how much she has sacrificed to be with him, primarily her awesome job as a researcher at Sotheby's. It happens to be the case that the auction agency is currently hosting a display of Wallis and Edwards personal belongings, and Wally spends all day every day standing and looking at these things and lapsing into reveries where we in the audience see the romance and exile of the titular lovers progress largely but not entirely in chronological order; it's not clear if Wally herself is imagining these moments or not. What she is certainly not imagining: hunky Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac, criminally unconvincing as a Russian).

For Wally, the legendary story of Wallis and Edward is one of the great love stories of all time; Madonna would appear to endorse this view, though it's not obvious that anyone else alive would agree with her. Regardless, it gives us one movie with one emotional throughline - whatever else is true, Madonna's script, co-written with Alek Keshishian, does a more than adequate job of following Wallis and Wally's respective love affair with the right kind of cross-cutting to make it obvious how they're informing one another. One emotional throughline, but two entirely different emotional registers.

Above and beyond all other concerns (and there are many), the simple truth about W./E. is that it fails because Wally absolutely and irredeemably sucks as a character. We learn exactly two things about her through the entire feature: she wants to have a baby, and she's obsessed with Wallis Simpson. That is a deadly laundry list for the character who gets the most screentime. It doesn't help that her entire plot arc is founded on such shaky grounds: as near as we can tell, William is no more unreasonable or shitty than any busy doctor husband - the film fails to give us even the slightest indication that the affairs he's having exist anywhere but Wally's mind. And if he can't stand the thought of fucking his wife or having a child with her, maybe that's because she's such a dreadful square: in a simply wretched performance that I pray has more to do with Madonna's obvious inability to manage actors than with the star's own shortcomings (for I rather like her), Cornish fails to give Wally any kind of depth or personality or even vitality; she spends the entire movie looking blanked-out on lithium, never responding to anything with more than a slight raising of her face and an attempt to look slightly more focused; if you take everything bad that Kristen Stewart has ever done and condense it into one performance, you have Cornish's Wally, one of the least-sympathetic romantic leads in contemporary memory.

With that kind of black hole sucking all the matter out of the center of the film, W./E. had absolutely no chance of being good; and Madonna does not do much to help things out with her really weird insistence on all the wrong things. "If only Wallis Simpson, the maligned romantic goddess of my imaginings, had a chance to tell HER story!" coos Wally at several points, and this is plainly the exact approach Madonna wanted to take; pity, then, that we never get any idea of what's going on below the most obvious surface-level activities. Wallis herself remains stubbornly enigmatic, despite a good share of half-baked expository lines about the struggle of a woman, and Don't they see what I gave up? (Not really, not based on this movie). Riseborough's performance, all battery acid and clipped line readings, is absolutely the best thing in the movie next to Phillips's costumes (which, incidentally, are chiefly interesting because of how they define Wallis's personality, so there's that) and perhaps Martin Childs's production design, and while she is enjoyable to watch in her brittle, commanding iciness, it's not really the kind of performance that Madonna seemed to be gunning for; the film's argument doesn't seem to be that Wallis Simpson was a misunderstood lover and victim, but that she was a hyper-competent bitch who was always the sharpest, smartest, and most talented one in the room. And that makes for a good movie character, but not at all an ingratiating one, and if this is meant to be Madonna's idea of what a powerful and sympathetic woman is like - and I might add, Riseborough is made-up to look rather like early-'90s Madonna, not such that it's glaring but enough that it's hard to un-notice once it drifts into your head - then it tells us much more about Madonna's personality than Wallis Simpson's.

But, although the film is thus misconceived - spectacularly misconceived, even - and though it plays so fast and loose with history that, perhaps by accident, it ends with a card indicating that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental, the film is not the car crash that you might have heard. Oh, how it is easy to pick at Madonna! But really, she's not a particularly awful director. Not at all a good one, of course; but the cinema is littered with not-quite-competent filmmakers, and if W./E. had been helmed by e.g. Lasse Hallström, it would have managed to avoid some of the spittle that landed on it. Her ending credits song, agreed, is pretty atrocious (and largely irrelevant to the movie's subject). But only her handling of actors qualifies as genuinely bad, and compared to her jangling and puerile 2008 debut, Filth and Wisdom, this film practically qualifies as stately. Anyway, it will make a fun double feature with The King's Speech some day; Harvey Weinstein's 1930s Royal Family Pictures. Maybe we can hold out hope for the same story told from Queen Mary's perspective next year.

4/10

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