Madonna's "W.E." is visually sumptuous but empty.
"W.E." is "Julie and Julia" for royalist snobs. This time out the players are the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), and Wally, a contemporary New York socialite (Abbie Cornish) crushing on her historic namesake. Rich, unhappily married Wally pores over video documentaries detailing the empire-rocking romance between Wallis, a divorced American commoner, and England's Edward VIII, who chose abdication and exile rather than live without her. You may recall him from "The King's Speech" as the dapper older brother who didn't stutter.
Wally moves through the film in a narcissistic fugue state. She imagines entering the sovereign couple's lives, intoxicated by their strained, wholly artificial existence, though the rational reaction to lives of such pampered uselessness would be pity. Her doctor husband's specialty is psychiatry; his marriage to Wally suggests he likes to take his work home with him. Like Wallis, she endures exquisite agonies in a psychic prison of her own making.
Other than a jarring vignette with the Sex Pistols' nihilistic "Pretty Vacant" fueling a 1930s society dance orgy, there's not a tinge of censure in this portrait of the gin-sipping social climber and her feckless monarch. As a form of publicity-based imaginary royalty herself, Madonna, who co-wrote and directs, clearly expects viewers to identify with the travails of these pampered creatures. Her grasp of character psychology is juvenile. Women are defined by their relationships to men, who are either fist-swinging brutes or doe-eyed love junkies.
The film's few grace notes come from the cast. Though the lifeless Cornish seems to be auditioning for a zombie movie, Oscar Isaac radiates authentic star power as an auction-house guard who catches her eye. Riseborough makes Wallis a figure of fierce willpower, an unprepossessing woman with mesmerizing powers of flirtation. As the ex-king, James D'Arcy presents a morose, well-tailored façade, which seems spot-on.
Tom Paine declared a hereditary monarch as absurd a proposition as a hereditary doctor or mathematician. Not far behind is the folly of giving a person a movie camera because she has a nice singing voice. With "W.E." Madonna gorges on glamour, architectural porn and haute couture but starves the mind.