A modern-day woman in a bad marriage thinks back on the life of Wallis Simpson and her role in the abdication of King Edward VIII.
In the 1990s, socialite housewife Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) struggles to gain the attention of her distant husband. Wally volunteers to help set up an exhibit on the English royals at a nearby museum, feeding her obsession with the infamous Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). We see Simpson in the 1930s, living the high society life in England with her second husband Ernest (David Harbour). When her path crosses with that of the future king of England, Prince Edward (James D’Arcy), their attraction to one another is undeniable. They spend more and more time together, enjoying each other’s company and growing closer until they begin an affair. Their whirlwind romance causes upset in the British monarchy in a time of political turmoil. Meanwhile, at the museum in the 90s, Wally meets handsome Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac). His interest in her leads her to question her relationship with her neglectful, abusive husband William (Richard Coyle), and gives her the strength to stand up to him.
The key problem with this film is that Wally is so much less compelling than Wallis that it’s hard not to want to get back to the other, more interesting storyline; comparing the two of them hardly seems fair. The framing device is oddly placed and doesn’t entirely work – the film would have worked better as a straight biopic of Wallis Simpson, though I’m definitely not complaining about getting to have Oscar Isaac in the film. Madonna absolutely knows what she’s doing in casting Oscar as the modern live interest. There’s an element of wish fulfilment to Evgeni, who swoops in to romantically woo and ultimately rescue Wally from her abusive husband. He’s just gorgeous in this, dodgy Russian accent and all, the close-cropped hair only serving to emphasise those giant brown eyes. He’s also working a hell of a lot harder than Abbie Cornish, who sleepwalks through her oddly-accented role. It’s hard to see what it is that attracts Evgeni to her. She slows the film down every time she’s on screen, and really everyone knows we’re just treading water until she leaves her husband (Jeff from Coupling, by the way, who will always be Jeff from Coupling to me, no matter what else he’s in) for the far superior piano-playing romantic Evgeni.
W.E. is also a film that takes a really long time to get going. It doesn’t help that there are a couple of flashbacks to other times outside the main timelines – the night of Wally & William’s first date, a flashback to Wallis’s first husband abusing her – that aren’t at all well-established. It does get going well enough in the second half to be genuinely engaging and tense, though. The film looks gorgeous, with a very good score from Abel Korzeniowski. There’s a lot of Madonna in this film – long shots of women in lingerie, smoking in almost every scene, hazy close-ups of beautiful objects. It’s Andrea Riseborough who really makes the film work, though. Ably supported by James D’Arcy as the prince she loves, Riseborough turns a notorious figure into a three-dimensional, complicated woman who lives outside of society’s rules and is punished for it. Her affection for Edward is at war with her knowledge of what his love for her means – for England, for their own lives, and for the destruction they leave in their wake. It’s an interesting portrayal of someone I didn’t know much about, and it’s easily enough to carry its own film, if only the Madonna had put her faith in it.
W.E. on IMDb