W.E. love Madonna: part 1

I first got acquainted with Madonna on the big screen at the ABC cinema in Harrow in 1987 for Who’s that Girl? a jolly caper starring Madonna as an ex-con in a tutu running around New York. Featuring big cats and bubblegum, the film was thoroughly entertaining, but as my mum told me as we left, that probably won’t be in the cinema for very long.

Well W.E.’s already done a lot better than WTG because last night was its UK premiere – a gala screening at the London Film Festival. The Empire Leicester Square was sold out to an audience of mega-fans (including Marianna and I below) who got to see Madonna introducing her film and some of the cast (sorry, don’t know which ones because I wasn’t looking at them) right in front of us. Dressed in a very Mrs Simpson black silk gown and with a noticeable and endearing tremor in her voice, she graciously received a standing ovation before the film had even started: tough crowd.

As you may have heard, W.E. tells interwoven stories of Wallis Simpson and her namesake Wally (Abbie Cornish), a young woman in 1990s New York, trapped in a troubled marriage who escapes domestic misery through her peculiar obsession with the legendary duchess (Andrea Riseborough). We all know what happened between King Edward VIII and his American divorcée, but through this reappraisal, Madonna aims to make us rethink everything we know about her heroine Wallis, another glamorous American in Europe and another twice-divorced woman cast by the media as an emasculating serial-seductress.

In the post-film Q&A Director-Madonna explained that she’d put in 3 years’ worth of research before she started writing the script – reading the couple’s letters, meeting people who’d known them, delving in the archives, visiting the places they’d lived and watching everything she could from the newsreels… this doesn’t mean that W.E. is at all historically accurate though. For example, M would have us believe that the 30-something Wallis would scrawl their initials on her mirror in lipstick (which does look very cool) or that Edward was a keen campaigner for social reform as well as a bright young thing (and a fine ancestor-inspiration for Prince Harry perhaps).

Madonna’s got a misjudged movie non-career full of bad films tucked away on IMDB, but she’s also got decades’ worth of immaculately shot videos, original photo shoots and blockbuster tours to prove that her capacity for visual/conceptual creativity is immense, so it shouldn’t be surprising that her first feature film as a director is gorgeous to look at. Shot in 3 countries, on 43 locations and with 83 costume changes for the duchess alone, W.E. is a WOW-production in terms of its style and scope. From its lavish sets and interiors, to its full-on hair and make-up and longtime M-collaborator Arianne Phillips‘ incredible costumes (made with the help of the Dior and V&A archives), the film, like Madonna (whose face cheeks are much smaller in real life) is dazzling.

From some great performances, Riseborough’s in particular stands out, playing Wallis beautifully and heartfeltly across the decades. Madonna added in the Q&A that Andrea turned up for her audition dressed in full-W.S.-in-her-heyday costume and hairdo (s/wot a clever girl) which pretty much sealed the deal. At some points, though, I wished that the film just stuck to the historical narrative without intruding on it with the sometimes clumsy, (post-Diana) 1990s storyline. Oddly enough it wasn’t Wally’s obsession with the charismatic American style icon that I found unbelievable, it was the sad situation that she found herself in and what she ultimately goes through to get out of it.

I’ll leave you with what director-M finished with last night when she was asked, What do you want people to take away from the film? After a lengthy pause she answered: ‘There’s no such thing as perfect love, and if you think there is, you’re in for a rude awakening… nothing is what it seems… before you come to a conclusion, make sure you gather as much evidence as possible.’

UPDATE/edit: I realised just now (10.20am on Monday morning) that W.E. and I are not finished – part 2 to follow).

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Co-editor and co-founder of Pamflet //

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