This is not the worst movie ever, not even Golden Raspberry worthy, despite what the internets say. To be sure, director and writer Madonna takes pains to contrive a story about two women separated by time, place, temperament, circumstance, social norms – nearly everything, and united only by name and a common dissatisfaction with marriage. She threads the life of Wally Winthrop, a modern day New York socialite, with that of Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée behind King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication, and holds it all together with the thinnest of gossamer strands.
But even the absence of basic narrative structure can be forgiven by a few things the film does well. There is a picturesque quality about the movie, aided by impressive costuming and production design immaculate to a detail. Madonna aims for something like the visual and nostalgic lushness of Wong Kar-Wai. She better approximates this with the glittery Wallis and Edward storyline, where shots linger like photographic stills. Added to that is Abel Korzeniowski’s bewitching score, which sweeps and swirls with breathless frenzy. His music bathes the picture in pool of melancholy, yearning, and regret.
All make for alluring cinema but most entrancing is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as the Duchess of Windsor. Riseborough dives into the screen, flinty, birdlike, and immediately seizes on Wallis, in much the same way she possessed her role as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley. She has an instinct for exposing resolute characters who try tuck away their emotional fragility. Her Wallis is underlined by despair, some of it her own making, and while not quite the seductress history has made her out to be, she isn’t the most gracious personality either. The casual dismissal of her husband (David Harbour) is callous and bares her cold ambition. She pursues with the tenacity of someone who has been wronged and selfishly takes chances where social decorum might give others pause.
Starring opposite Riseborough is a regal James D’Arcy. His performance as King Edward VIII feels like something out of a forgotten film reel, handsomely preserved and radiating a freshness that comes after being shuttered away for so long. Edward glides effortlessly through his duties and his lovers before his infatuation with Wallis arrests his ennui, and he is finally grounded by something, someone, who infuses him with a passion greater than that which comes with the crown. Appropriately, in a movie that is drawn more to Wallis, there is a distance to Edward, but he is almost too obscure a character and his attraction too understated. It is a fault more with the script than with D’Arcy’s performance that Edward remains a hidden part of this tantalizing love story.
A better film would have tightened the focus on this romance, which contains enough drama for a three-part BBC series. However, Madonna, not unlike Wallis, gambled on the public’s generosity and bloats her project by adding a modern day storyline. Wally (Abbie Cornish) functions as her namesake’s counterpart but the two lives hardly converge. Though both characters feel cornered, they differ wildly in desires and predicaments. Wallis’s life is defined by bold persistence, while Wally, who suffocates under the physical and emotional abuse of her husband (Richard Coyle), spends her days drifting through Sotheby’s to view an auction of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate. Madonna nevertheless manufactures a relationship and forces the two together in several imagined sequences, but the stories interlock with the grace of a kid smashing non-matching puzzle pieces together.
Part of the problem is that Wally is so poorly defined. Most of her scenes are confined to the auction house where she spends hours inexplicably lingering over crystal goblets and cigarette cases. Even her friends do not understand her kinship with Wallis. Why does she cry when listening to the phonograph? What is she meditating about when she gazes into Wallis’s diamonds? Cornish is given a few moments to add nuance to her character but doesn’t seize on any of these.
She ends up being outshined by Oscar Isaac as security guard Evgeni. He enchants Wally by being everything her husband is not, and she falls easily for the slumming Russian intellectual. Isaac is a study in measured acting, spinning his role from a lusty detail into a compelling character. He crafts an entire life out a few choice lines and searing glances. If Madonna’s hankering to revisit this story, she should make a film about Evgeni. That would be hypnotizing affair.
“Masterpiece” by Madonna
Prod: Madonna, Kris Thykier
Writer: Madonna, Alek Keshishian
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle, David Harbour, Katie McGrath, Judy Parfitt, James Fox, Laurence Fox, Natalie Dormer, Geoffrey Palmer, Haluk Bilginer, Christina Chong
Time: 119 min
Lang: English, a touch of Welsh
Country: United Kingdom