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It’s easy for jaded audiences and critics to dismiss W.E. simply because it was written and directed by an aging pop queen. I mean, really, who does she think she is? And did you see Swept Away or Body of Evidence. Gross. But the truth is that we all should’ve learned to stop judging celebrities-turned-directors a long time ago, when Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, George Clooney, and Ben Affleck started making good movies. Hell, even Fred Durst made two passable movies. We shouldn’t dismiss W.E. simply because it’s written and directed by Madonna, it’s small minded of us. We shouldn’t even dismiss W.E. because we suspect that Madonna wants to see some kind of romantic kinship between herself and Wallis Simpson. Even if it is a little creepy. What we should do is dismiss W.E. because Madonna has written and directed it badly, and with such conviction.

The official Weinstein synopsis: W.E. tells the story of two fragile but determined women - Wally Winthrop and Wallis Simpson - separated by more than six decades. In 1998, lonely New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is obsessed with what she perceives as the ultimate love story: King Edward's VIII's abdication of the British throne for the woman he loved, American divorcée Wallis Simpson. But Wally's research, including several visits to the Sotheby's auction of the Windsor Estate, reveals that the couple's life together was not as perfect as she thought. Weaving back and forth in time, W.E. intertwines Wally's journey of discovery in New York with the story of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D'Arcy), from the glamorous early days of their romance to the slow unraveling of their lives in the decades that followed.

W.E quickly defines itself as a heavy-handed, cherry-pick through the most dramatic moments of Simpson and Winthrop’s lives without much in the way of context. The shock of violence is used with all the weight of a Jason Voorhees murder, and significant events are juxtaposed between the decades for the sake of the juxtaposition, not for the sake of story. Madonna and co-writer Alek Keshishian are so concerned with the clever rhythm and structure of their screenplay that they entirely forget to actually say anything. The bigger problem is that even when set this relentlessly against each other, the stories don’t blend, and anything not involving the infinitely more interesting tale of Simpson’s life drags the pace to a crawl. The performances are confident enough, but the eye-rollingly dopey dialogue, and nuance-free characters make for unintentionally funny arguments and faux-satirical takes on biographical movie tropes (I’m not sure it’s even possible for me to care about these characters, but it would be nice to see someone put in the effort). And as far as intentional humour is concerned, Madonna and Keshishian appear to be militantly dead set against including even a hint of levity in their melodrama, outside of a few brief sequences where they’re used to replace genuine sentiment for the sake of further ‘clever’ juxtapositions.

Madonna’s direction is nothing if not self-assured. She keeps the camera moving and heavily cuts the generally not action packed story as if it were a Michael Bay extravaganza. No more than 30 seconds pass before she’s cramming yet another optical zoom, change of format (she uses multiple cameras throughout, some 16mm and some 35mm), and/or pointless slow motion into the shot. It’s obvious that she’s learned her craft watching her ex-husband and a cavalcade of the best music video directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fact, if I were to visually compare W.E. to anything it would be the Truth or Dare documentary she starred in, which was directed by co-writer Keshishian. The problem here is that the look is exhausting and quickly overtakes any possibility of genuine drama. In the place of narrative intrigue and well-drawn characters is just more filmmaking flash, and it doesn’t serve the narrative, which is built around the subtle and stuffy bourgeoisie politics. I’m actually surprised I’m so bothered by the style over substance approach, given that I complained so vehemently about the made for BBC look of The King’s Speech, and that the only thing I really liked about The Iron Lady was Phyllida Lloyd’s aggressive direction. I guess there’s something to say for discretion, because the brief inclusion of Edward and Simpson’s relationship in The King’s Speech (a film I simply didn’t like all that much) is a vastly more satisfying look at the story.



W.E. was shot using a mixed media approach of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film. I’m not really sure where the formats are divided, but none looks particularly sharp given the amount of post-production tinker that goes into each frame. What is immediately clear about this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is that the black levels are really weak, appearing nearly as grey as the purposefully desaturated blacks of Martha Marcy May Marlene. There’s no doubt that Madonna and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski heavily treated their stock to achieve a dry, blown out look, and the weakest dark elements are delegated to the edges of the frame, so I suppose this too is an intended look, but it certainly doesn’t do this transfer any favours. When cut against lighter hues the blacks look all right, but the darkest sequences are quite fuzzy. Detail levels are even throughout the film, and generally about as sharp as we can expect from 16mm film (which doesn’t really explain the lack of major change-up between 16mm and 35mm), meaning close-ups look fine, but backgrounds are kind of mushy even when the focus is set far back. Colour schemes are pointedly desaturated and softened, but there’s a lot of variety in the colour schemes of given scenes. Modern scenes are generally less colourful, but relatively warm, while period sequences are spiked with selective cool hues. There are poppy reds and greens throughout, and overall everything cuts nicely against everything else without a lot of bleeding edges, despite the intentionally rough look. There are some minor issues with edge haloes and blooming warm hues against cool hues, but nothing major in terms of blocking or compression effects.



Generally speaking this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a bit on the soft side, and, like me, most viewers will probably find themselves continuously turning up their system to hear what the mumbling actors are saying. I’m sort of surprised by the lack of sound effects throughout the film, but also respect the choice to fill out the aural atmosphere with music instead, even if the final effect isn’t quite as well executed as I’d prefer. In terms of natural ambience a few of the outdoor scenes feature basic traffic and street noise in the stereo and surround channels, but for the most part only distinctive, on-screen action creates noise outside of the music, and for the most part this sound comes from the center channel. There are a few montage sequences that get a bit aggressive with directional support, but this is the exception to the rule. The musical tracks do sound quite good, though, and do quite a bit to set the appropriate mood. Abel Korzeniowski’s is a generally effective mix of mournful piano themes and eerie dissonance, and there are a lot of stereo effects, along with a decent rear channel echo support, and a really heavy LFE bump. The LFE is also heavily used during period and pop music additions.


The only extra, outside of trailers, is The Making of W.E. Featuring Madonna (22:40, SD) featuring actors Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy, Oscar Isaac, James Fox, Laurence Fox and Natalie Dormer, cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, Oscar nominated costume designer Arianne Phillips, and Madonna discussing the film, spiced with on-set footage and choice shots from the final project. Discussion concerns the usual EPK subject matter, including the whys and hows of the subject matter, costume design, cinematography, props, dancing, etcetera, and no one really says much of anything outside of the fact that they love everything about the film.



Setting aside the whole Madonna thing, W.E. is amusing to me because the timing of its release makes me assume it’s a kind of cash-in on the surprise success of The King’s Speech. It’s a weird, well-funded, high class Asylum mockumentary analogue, or better yet, a cheapo Italian exploitation film sold as a sequel to an American-made hit. It’s the Zombi 2 of stuffy period movies! I am mostly convinced that Madonna, her co-producers, and Keshishian genuinely wanted to tell this story (according to legend the screenplay was handed to Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Ritchie in 2008), but there’s no way Harvey Weinstein wasn’t swayed by the connection between the films. I’ll even wager that there will be a packaged set of King’s Speech and W.E. sold on Blu-ray within the next year. As for this single movie Blu-ray – I can’t imagine anyone is going to really enjoy W.E., but those select few that do might want to save a couple bucks on a DVD release (assuming it’s actually cheaper), because the stylized photography and thin sound mix don’t exactly make the best use of Blu-ray technology. The extras are pretty much a waste too.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.