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A Royal Pain

by Ann Morrow on April 11, 2012

Directed by Madonna

Pretty vacant: W.E.

The Material Girl directs a movie about material culture in W.E., Madonna’s utterly meaningless biopic about “the romance of the century” between Wallis Simpson, an American social climber, and Edward, Prince of Wales, who abdicated the throne to marry her. Onscreen, their romance is as vapid as the future Duke and Duchess of Windsor were reported to be. Madonna and screenwriter Alek Keshisman (director of the documentary Truth or Dare), in a vain attempt to make it contemporary, have tied Simpson to a present-day art-scene socialite, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), who is obsessed with Wallis and escapes her unhappy marriage by attending previews of an auction of the couple’s possessions.

Having festishized herself 20 years ago in her coffee-table book, Sex, Madonna here does the same thing to the Windsors, and the auction is the liveliest part of the movie. Which is awful, as is everything else, especially how the director (using the term loosely) shows Wallis onstage doing the Charleston with a native African woman to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” Huh? Why not just show Wallis floating out to sea on the Cote d’Azur?

Andrea Risborough as Wallis gets the social climber’s brittle cleverness just right, while James D’Arcy as Edward is all style and no substance; though this might be accurate, the character pales into irrelevance compared to Guy Pearce’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. It’s obvious that there wasn’t anything wrong with the prince that a week or two in one of the Welsh coal mines he visits wouldn’t cure, though the filmmakers are oblivious to the effects of too much leisure time on their subjects.

Cornish is lovely and slightly somnolent as usual, in spite of a depiction of Wally’s marriage to a brutal doctor (Richard Coyle) that is comically shallow. The only things that make this addled, coffee-table-book-style bio-drama tolerable are the elegant costumes and a beautiful score, by Abel Korzeniowski, that gives the romance at least a veneer of importance. God save the composer.