Madonna’s ‘W.E.’: The Reviews Are In!

The magic of Madonna's parallel romantic storytelling appears to have been lost on critics.

In addition to her heavily hyped performance at Super Bowl XLVI this weekend, Madonna has been busy writing and directing her second movie, “W.E.,” which follows the real-life love story of American divorcée Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII during the ’30s, as well as a parallel story of a fictional American woman set in 1998 who became obsessed with Simpson’s story.

The film has received some early awards-season love, including a Golden Globe win for Best Original Song and another Globe nomination for Best Original Score, but judging by its 17 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the magic of the romance seems to have been lost on critics. Read on as we sift through the “W.E.” reviews:

The Parallel Storytelling
“Madonna and co-screenwriter Alek Keshishian try to fuse the threads of two very different tales, set several eras apart, to provide elucidation on the nature of love. But there’s not much illumination to be had. There is, however, plenty of pretentious folderol. Clothes, jewelry and expensive trinkets are fraught with superficial symbolism. The more intriguing of the two stories centers on the 1930s romance and marriage of chic American divorcée Wallis Simpson and Great Britain’s King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to marry her. (The title stands for Wallis and Edward.) … Jumping forward to 1998, the second story is about Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) and her fascination with Simpson. Married to a self-absorbed and abusive psychiatrist, Wally roams New York City in a state of gloomy reverie. She forges an unlikely bond with Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a guard at Sotheby’s, where she goes often to look at the royal paraphernalia about to be auctioned. The disparate strands of the two stories never make much sense the way they’re braided together. Presumably, the more Wally learns about the sacrifices Wallis made, the more she is emboldened to follow her heart and leave her own unhappy marriage. Yet what she uncovers about the Duke and Duchess is not always pretty.” — Claudia Puig, USA Today

Madonna as Writer/Director
“The upshot is that instead of a film about a love that conquered a king and nearly undid a kingdom, Madonna has come up with a female friendship movie, which would be fine if she weren’t busy trying to prove her art-film bona fides. At her entertainer best, Madonna distilled ideas and emotions into solid pop gold, transmitting a worldview through songs, music videos and her shape-shifter persona. The movies, by contrast, have largely defeated her both as an actress and as a director. As a mystical female friendship movie, ‘W.E.’ has its pull, but it never coheres, shredded by its editing and its pretensions, like Mrs. Simpson dancing to the Sex Pistols with a woman in African tribal regalia because, I’m guessing, Madonna likes the way Sofia Coppola used New Order’s music in ‘Marie Antoinette.’ ” — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

The Chick-Flick Factor
” ‘W.E.’ (which interlocks with ‘The King’s Speech’ — Bertie pops up in a couple of scenes here just as David appeared in that one) is very much a woman’s picture. The men, except the Sotheby’s security guard, mainly serve as obstacles or targets. That viewpoint is daring and kind of refreshing; a recent study noted that some two-thirds of the dialogue in Hollywood movies is spoken by men (in my experience, that is a reversal of reality). In the Wallis portions, Madonna presents a frank, unashamed defense of gold-digging, though she does unconvincing penance for this in the Wally story, in which the bride proves lonely and bored in her Upper East Side castle. After more than 40 years of feminism, the gold-digging subtext remains as central to female fantasy as it is in Jane Austen novels, and it’s implicit in most of those rom-coms in which, just by sheer coincidence, true love happens with the owner of a chain of bookstores, or the millionaire a gal meets while working the streets. If the woman virtuously chooses love over money, she gets the lucre anyway.” — Kyle Smith, The New York Post

The Final Word, Pro-Con Style
“If anyone, Madonna certainly understands the crazy pull of celebrity obsession, and it’s an intriguingly romantic premise she presents, interweaving Wally’s story with the Duchess’, often triggered by the modern woman’s handling of certain artifacts belonging to the late, almost-Queen of England, who even begins to appear to her in hallucinations, to offer world-weary advice and/or disapproval. The director tells the Duchess’ story with surprising verve, historical accuracy and style, a huge improvement over the nastily cartoonish way the couple was represented in the overrated ‘The King’s Speech’ last year. There are a few clichéd missteps, as when Edward’s mother, Queen Mary (Judy Parfitt), clucks, ‘This is a pretty kettle of fish!’ over her son’s scandal, but, for the most part, the historical sequences have a thrilling élan, aided by the crack photography, art direction and especially Arianne Phillips’ superbly accurate costume design for this most chic of fashion eras. Taking a cue, perhaps, from Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette,’ Madonna has also effectively interpolated modern pop-rock music along with the usual Deco cocktail standards of the era.” — David Noh, FilmJournal.com

“You can’t call ‘W.E.’ a total disaster; it’s too pretty, too nonsensical and finally too insignificant for that. Rather, it’s a heavily decorated and overly complicated exercise in female narcissism, which in its plotless meandering fashion seeks to draw a mystical connection between an unhappy Manhattan wife and Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the Baltimore socialite who married King Edward VIII. Riseborough gives a richly enjoyable performance as the prickly, strange and not especially beautiful American who pulled a king and emperor from his throne, and some of the 1930s scenes are pretty fun, after the fashion of outtakes from ‘The King’s Speech’ turned into music videos or haute couture shoots. Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian (who directed ‘Truth or Dare’ way back in 1991) go right at the historical reputation of Wallis and Edward as Nazi sympathizers, and to the extent that ‘W.E.’ is an attempt to rehabilitate them at least it has a clear agenda.” — Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

Check out everything we’ve got on “W.E.”

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