Madonna (centre) with stars of W.E. Andrea Riseborough and Australian Abbie Cornish.
AGLAMOROUS livewire American goes to England. Divorced, moneyed and blessed with a certain social cachet, she nevertheless senses that something about her is not quite acceptable in the circles she yearns to join. And that matters, because she doesn't want to skitter around the edges of society or in its boho night shadows, where nobody cares about titles or origins. She wants to be the lady of a manor. She wants to ride to hounds. She wants it all.
It's not hard to understand why Madonna might be drawn to the story of Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced cocktail-party socialite for whom Edward VIII abdicated the throne. Not for nothing has W.E., the film she has written and directed about the famous royal romance, been described as a vanity project. "I identify with her in that it's very common when people become celebrities or public figures or icons, we are often reduced to a soundbite," she said after its launch at the Venice Film Festival. "You are given a few attributes and then you're not allowed to have any more than that."
She does not want to say, however, that Simpson's story is hers. "To say this person is me or this situation is me would be unfair.'' At the same time, she is not putting herself in Simpson's shoes. "I think because I wrote it, as with all things I do, I'm in everything. You become a channel and things flow through you."
Actors James D'Arcy as Edward VIII and Andrea Riseborough as socialite Wallis Simpson.
If the Material Girl has an avatar on screen, it is Abbie Cornish's Wally Winthrop, a bored and frustrated New York trophy wife whose story, set in 1998, runs in tandem with the historical one. Wally is obsessed with Wallis Simpson and looks to this unlikely sage for guidance in life. Simpson even obliges, her shade appearing to urge Wally to "get a life".
Anything Madonna does is an event. The one really remarkable thing about W.E. is the fact that the director's name could persuade museums to lend her vintage clothes, couture houses to volunteer to re-create pieces she could not borrow, and jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels to send archive pieces in the care of security guards to the set. For the press, the unveiling of the finished film in Venice was unmissable. Perhaps the tsunami of critical vitriol that followed was correspondingly inevitable, geared less to the film's awfulness than to Madonna's status and, perhaps, her perceived toughness as a target.
Writing in The Guardian, Xan Brooks said that nothing the real Wallis Simpson had done in life, from sparking a constitutional crisis to fraternising with Nazis, warranted such humiliation. "Or could it be that Madonna is in deadly earnest here? If so, her film is more risible than we had any right to expect; a primped and simpering folly, the turkey that dreamed it was a peacock … Her direction is so all over the shop that it barely qualifies as direction at all."
The real Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, in 1936. Photo: Getty Images
But W.E. is not unwatchable. The Queen of Pop has spent enough time making film clips to understand camera angles and surface gloss and, if her dialogue is clunky, she is well-served by Cornish, by Andrea Riseborough as Simpson and James D'Arcy as Edward. What is disturbing is its slack-jawed adoration for aristocratic privilege, power and precious objects, undiluted by even a Downton-sized dash of critical irony. It is impossible to imagine a British director making this film. Even after nine years as Mrs Guy Ritchie, Madonna still seems to have her nose pressed against somebody's Tudor window pane.
Or perhaps it is just that she is in such deadly earnest. "The thing about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the world Wallis found herself in," said Madonna, "was that it was one of luxury and beauty and, to a certain extent, decadence … I wanted to make the point that no matter how beautiful and glamorous your surroundings, that is no guarantee of happiness." It's a line worthy of Mrs Simpson's ghost, the sort of gimlet apercu one might expect from a fortune cookie. Or, come to think of it, from a pop song.
Read Philippa Hawker's review of W.E. in The Saturday Age.