Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) comes from a long line of women fascinated by the scandalous affair of Baltimore socialite Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and King Edward VIII (James D’arcy), one that caused her to give up a husband and him to give up the throne. It’s apparently an obsession common enough to be shared by certified music icon and occasional film director Madonna, as she proceeds to tenuously connect the modern romantic woes of Wally in 1998 Manhattan with the globe-shocking marriage of that 1930s socialite and the heir apparent in W.E..
Left cold by her spouse, a doctor ever on call (Richard Coyle), Wally seeks recurring refuge at a Sotheby’s showcase of Wallis and Edward pieces soon to grace the auction block. Here, she befriends a covertly intellectual security guard (Cornish's Sucker Punch co-star Oscar Isaac), touches the merchandise with little regard for courtesy and daydreams about the surely splendid days that W and E must have spent together, even as the whole of Europe frowned upon their relationship.
The result is a handsome but hollow cross between The King’s Speech and The Hours, shot with all the pretense of a perfume ad. It’s a chance for one upper-crust white woman to champion a pair of like-minded proxies, with Wallis clearly serving as the more fitting analog, prone to exquisite partying when not pestered by photographers and excoriated in the press. Riseborough happens to give the more engaging performance as well, embodying the spunk which defined her reputation and the confidence that would win over the heart of royalty. If Cornish falls short, it’s because Madonna (having co-written the screenplay with Alek Keshishian) sells her character short, so concerned with drawing parallels to Wallis’ life and predictably inviting Isaac’s relentlessly suave companion to set off a love triangle that she fails to define Wally beyond imagined interactions with her namesake -- a mistake -- and a vacant stare meant to pass for lovelorn ennui.
It would be one thing if W.E. were strictly a swooning counterpoint to Speech’s scowling dismissal of Wallis and Edward's relationship, an embellishment of an already notorious romance rather than a twice-lathered soap opera. Oh, if there were more flourishes like a party of the period suddenly accompanied by the likes of the Sex Pistols (a gambit already pulled off to greater effect and with greater conviction in Marie Antoinette), and if only we had been spared hallucinatory conversations and an unlikely overlap in suffering between the two subjects, then we would be talking about a film defined by its characters and constitution rather than its admittedly superb production design.
Alas, such are the priorities of poor little rich girls.