Madonna is not remembered for her appearances on the big screen, but for her music. Her attempts at acting have been mainly failures, except for "Evita" in 1996, where she sang for the majority of the film. Her personal life has even been, one might say, wrecked by film: her first marriage to the actor Sean Penn ended in divorce, as did her second marriage to British film director, Guy Ritchie. Still, somehow, the scandalous divorcee has weathered all odds and directed a new film, W.E., which opened nationally on February 3.
The film is very much Madonna’s movie; she not only directed it, but also co-wrote the screenplay. Her fellow screenwriter is Alek Keshishian, a Lebanon-born film director, best known for Madonna’s "Truth or Dare," the 1991 documentary that showcased her antics and debauchery during her Blond Ambition tour. Harvey Weinstein, the Oscar-winning Hollywood maven featured in the documentary 20 years ago, now serves as the executive producer of “W.E.” It is perhaps unsurprising that after so many cinematic failures, Madonna wanted to surround herself with long-term business partners she could rely on.
Foregoing a focus on her own life, the film hinges on the story of King Edward VIII, heir to the throne of the United Kingdom and dominions of the British Empire, as well as Emperor of India, and his abdication out of romantic passion for a mere commoner: the American socialite Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). The viewer sees their saga through the eyes of two modern characters who parallel the famous love story: Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), married to a renowned yet abusive psychiatrist, and a security guard at Sotheby’s (Oscar Isaac). The two meet as she visits a Wallis Simpson auction.
The tale is not a naive hymn to love, and graphic scenes of domestic violence are sure to disturb. Yet the voyeuristic spectacle, as seen by the roving camera at the outset of the film, is not gratuitous. Despite the shock-value of domestic violence, there is a quintessentially Christian, if not Catholic subtext to the film. If it is true that Madonna attempted to bury her Catholic faith during her years of waywardness, a late adolescence of sorts when she reveled in her brash impiousness, she still seems haunted by Holy Mother Church. This is not a godless picture.
The leitmotif of rise and fall lies at the center of the film, most notably as the king and his American wife are often remembered as Nazi sympathizers—arguably the most damning epithet modern history could bestow on a public figure. Madonna said she found no concrete evidence of this egregious association in her research while writing the script, aside from their meeting Hitler prior to the war as many leaders did. (She adds an ironic twist on modern celebrity, as the director claims she has been maligned unfairly by the press more than once.)
The film’s most searing scenes show us a broken female body, as when Wallis Simpson bleeds after her first husband beat her up. Or when her Wally Winthrop realizes her husband really does not want to have children and start a family. Enraged, she smashes all her fertility capsules into the sink, bleeding again. In both instances, the blood of Christ is reflected in the hands and groins of Mary-like figures.
Still, the film is not devoid of insouciance. Certainly the love that binds the king and Wallis at the beginning is winsome and carefree. So is the romantic bond of the modern-day couple. As she visits a Sotheby's exhibition of Wallis Simpson memorabilia, Wally Winthrop slowly falls in love with the security guard, a Russian-sounding immigrant who comes from a “'refugee camp in Vermont.”' Exoticism, the brainchild of romance, is a bit clichéd—but it sets the mood before the tide rises.
Transgression runs high as the film glamorizes divorce through both timelines. To be sure, there is an expected feminist touch, as both women decide to go out into the world and find something better out there rather than stay in their homes and work on their marriages. In this sense, Wallis Simpson is seen as a forward-thinking, headstrong woman rather than the unappealing imagine of a reckless and selfish wife. Interestingly, her indomitable character is reflected in her fashion style, as her dresses, hats and shoes always enhance her.
But men are not belittled by the film. In both cases, they are the ones to approach their prospective paramours and encourage them to start a relationship. The king, madly in love with the socialite, arranges for her divorce from her first husband, then rearranges his entire life to suit her. The security guard sees the hapless visitor in the auction hall and starts conversations with her every time she returns, until he brings her home. This traditional sociological pattern may indeed jar a viewer with preconceptions about the director. While both women are reminiscent of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, they are also deeply dependent on strong men. Perhaps the Material Girl, too, is more conservative than one might assume.
The soundtrack has already been praised, as the theme-song, “Masterpiece,”  won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song earlier this year. Yet it is not difficult to see why Madonna would be displeased if her cinematic work were remembered solely on the basis of its musical dimension. Evidently, this film was her attempt to make a masterpiece out of this historical love story. She falls short of such a feat, setting her expectations a little too high. Still, the film offers a refreshing perspective on a much-contested tale. Could this be a more mature Blond Ambition tour, chasing after artistic gravitas?