Original review featured on the Doha Film Institute website.
Madonna’s second feature as director begins in 1998, where lonely Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes obsessed with the story of King Edward’s VIII’s abdication of the British throne for a woman he loved, the American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). Wally’s personal life is on the cusp of a dramatic change. On the surface, her marriage seems solid; her husband William is a successful therapist and the couple is envied by friends and relatives. But in reality, miscommunication takes the lead during our first encounter with the doctor at a dinner in his honour. Wally is not sitting beside him; and he either doesn’t notice or acknowledge her presence. As she says, William is a smart manipulator, “he can use my words against me”. He doesn’t want her to work, but doesn’t want children either. Wally tries to overcome her bitter reality by daydreaming about images from history.
Wally ends up spending her long and lonely days at a Sotheby’s auction house, looking at objects from the royal estate in Windsor and researching the doomed affair between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. The parallel lives meet through the imagination of Willis triggered by an object, a letter or a photo and sometimes an accessory she wears herself. On many occasions, she becomes one with her idol, getting inspired by her strength against all odds.
The film cuts between Wally’s self-discovery – which is noticed by a widowed Russian intellectual working as a security guard at the auction house – and the glamorous early days of King Edward and Wallis Simpson’s relationship. The past and the present accentuate the similarities between the two women; one punished for being loved by a king, and the other punished by her insensitive husband.
Last year’s Oscar winner “The King’s Speech” gave us a glimpse of the relationship between King Edward VIII and Simpson, casting Guy Pearce as the beleaguered king. “W.E.” develops this section. This is by no means a historical film, it’s like a poem narrated against background music. One notable feature of the film is the omnipresence of music, but it certainly isn’t harmful.
Andrea Riseborough’s performance elevates her above the act of impersonation to reveal the character of a woman condemned by history. Her powerful acting is worth mentioning, making her one of the most promising rising actors in Britain today. Similarly, Madonna’s directing shows a cinematic maturity previously unseen.
The film opens today in Doha’s theatres, and if you’re a dreamer who is questioning why a king would give up his throne for a woman, or if you just want to let go with a memorable love story, then this film is your answer.