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In 1998, an auction of the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor causes great excitement. For one woman, Wally Winthrop, it has much more meaning. Wally becomes obsessed by their historic love story. As she learns more about the sacrifices involved, Wally gains her own courage to find happiness. Written by
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'Darling, they can't hurt you if you don't let them.'
The much maligned, brief theatrical film by Madonna - W.E. - fairs better on the small screen than it likely did in the movie houses. The stories are bifurcated, each one resembling a television creation - one a docudrama biopic, the other a contemporary soap opera. That Madonna, who directed and wrote the screenplay with Alek Keshishian, decided to mix the two stories is a bit daring but in some ways it works very well. In other ways the parallel stories seem like time traveling cars on the same highway that never quite travel at the same speed or quality.
The film mixes the notorious affair between King Edward VIII and American divorcée Wallis Simpson with a contemporary romance between a married woman and a Russian security guard. The time is 1998 and at an auction of the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor unhappily married ex-Sotheby employee Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes obsessed by their historic love story. Her own marriage to womanizing, abusive psychiatrist William (Richard Coyle) undermines her feelings of worth and as she learns more about the sacrifices involved in the famous affair, she gains her own courage to find happiness.
The film flips back and forth between the present and the 1930s and it is the historical aspect of the film that is almost flawless. We get to know Wallis Simpson (in a brilliant portrayal by Andrea Riseborough) and understand her failed first two marriages (at the time we meet her she is still married to Ernest Simpson played by David Harbour), and see the American sizzle that made her the talk of England. When Wallis wrangles her way to meet Prince Edward, better known as David, (James D'Arcy) there is a chemistry that develops to the point of passion and ultimately leads to Wallis divorcing Ernest to marry Edward - a deed that leads to Edward's abdication of the throne for 'the woman I love', which he had assumed when King George V (James Fox) dies, to his stammering brother Bertie (Laurence Fox) and his caustic wife Elizabeth (Natalie Dormer). The paparazzi make their life miserable and the couple is not allowed to return to England until Edward dies, with the faithful Wallis supportively by his side through 36 years of marriage.
Wally - meanwhile - longs to be pregnant but sustains such abuse from William that she ultimately yields to the loving friendship the auction house Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) and begins her life again. The two stories are connected by Wally's obsession with the royal couple's notorious affair and at auction's end she is given access to private letters between Wallis and Edward that have been in the possession of Mohamed Al-Fayed (Haluk Bilginer) - a tacked on ending that feels ill at ease and redundant.
Everyone connected t the biopic angle of this film is excellent and Madonna shows that she knows how to direct affairs of the heart in a royal situation very well indeed. Both Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy are superb and the costumes and music and cinematography of this historical portion are exceptionally well done. Though the idea of the contemporary sluggish story is reasonable, Abbie Cornish seems uncomfortable with the script: Oscar Isaac shines as her new love. In all the film, though spotty, has merit and it not a bad debut for Madonna as director.
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