A Tale of Two Wallies
News has reached the 24LAS bunker: startling news, barely credible, almost incomprehensible news. Apparently Benjamin Affleck, who did sterling service in this column in the early part of the last decade, usually as a target for cheap gags, has somehow become a credible actor and director again.
Obviously my first thought was to go and see the new Affleck movie, apparently a behind-the-scenes drama set at a prominent catalogue-based shopping chain, but the shock of this news has forced me to take to my bed. Until I am back on my feet again the Post will have to make do with the following review of One That Got Away from earlier this year...
I directed [my first film] to teach myself about filmmaking… And now, with this self-punishing process of being a producer and a writer and a director, I'm taking the next step. – Madonna.
And if only the punishment had stopped there. But I am getting ahead of myself. Yes, every once in a while a film sneaks past me on its cinema release, usually due to quirks of scheduling or there simply not being enough hours in the day. Even though I have a probably-unhealthy interest in Bad Movies, I do try to exercise common sense in choosing what to see, which is why I skipped seeing Her Madgesty's movie W.E. on its opening weekend in favour of – I suspect – either Coriolanus or The Descendants. Had it had a second weekend, I would probably have gone to see it then. But it didn't: this movie only lasted a week in UK cinemas. Lawks!
Directed, co-written, and co-produced by Madonna, W.E. reveals that the singer and arch-provocateur is capable of stunning work with the instruments of cinema. I should put that in context by adding that this is in the same sense that being cracked round the head by Madonna with a frying pan would reveal she is capable of stunning work with the instruments of short-order cooking, i.e. this film is stunning in the sense of being 'liable to cause confusion, bewilderment, or loss of consciousness'.
The very easy-on-the-eye Abbie Cornish plays Wally Winthrop, an unhappily married young woman living in New York in 1998. She comes from a long line of women fascinated with the life of Wallis Simpson, the divorced American woman who was instrumental in causing both the Abdication Crisis of 1936 and The Great King's Speech Awards Hoovering of 2011. Wally's interest in Wallis starts to become obsessive and the film cuts back and forth between Wallis's relationship with Prince Edward (played by James D'Arcy) and a somewhat less momentous coming together of Wally with a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac).
Madonna is clearly not a woman much troubled with self-doubt and perhaps it makes a certain kind of sense for her to be responsible for a film about a woman who was simultaneously widely reviled and yet somewhat iconic – an iconoclast, a threat to the establishment, passionate and yet – the film proposes – deeply vulnerable. But I also got a strange sense that what Madonna perhaps really wanted to do was make a movie about Princess Di, an arguably-similar figure – for instance, Mohammed al-Fayed appears in this film as a character – but nobody would give her the backing.
At least a Princess Di movie wouldn't have a central character with such a public image problem. The movie does accept that Wallis Simpson is one of the most disdained figures in recent history, but it seems to quite seriously argue that both she and the Duke of Windsor were actually dashing, romantic figures, politically engaged, and that they were rejected by a fearful and reactionary British Establishment. Not content with having Wallis as a sympathetic protagonist, the movie really goes for broke by presenting the Queen Mum – the dear old, lovely old, gawd-bless-yer-ma'am Queen Mum – as a vicious, passive-aggressive, imperialist harpy and George VI as an ineffectual weakling (Helena Bonham-Carter and Colin Firth, you may not be surprised to learn, do not reprise these roles).
Now I suppose it may be the case that Wallis and Edward have been on the wrong end of decades of systematic, institutionalised libel on the part of the British Establishment, and that there may indeed be a good film to be made, telling the story from their point of view (though beating the 'Nazi sympathiser' rap will always be a big task). However, this is not that film. This film is a mess.
This movie does not look cheap and contains a number of impressive performances, particularly Riseborough's. And it is by no means technically inept in terms of the actual sound, visuals, or editing (that said, to describe the script as somewhat artless is perhaps being rather charitable).
I've been racking my brains trying to find a way to describe Madonna's directorial style. Here goes: it's like having a conversation with someone whose English is not particularly advanced, but who has mastered at least the basics. However, this person has spent ages reading books on advanced idioms and slang and committed many of them to memory, and insists on wheeling them out regardless of whether or not they're appropriate to the tone or real meaning of what they're trying to say. In other words, Madonna is always doing something complicated and eyecatching with the camera or editing, without apparently giving any thought to how well it serves her story. She's very fond of sweeping montages driven along by the soundtrack, almost like – and who'd have guessed it – a pop video. Sometimes she steals quirky touches from elsewhere – one of the more startling sequences, in which the Duke and Duchess get their party guests high on benzedrine before dancing the Charleston to the Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant', struck me as suspiciously similar to a scene in the equally-dubious biopic Marie Antoinette.
She is perhaps a bit more restrained in the 1990s section of the film, but the combination of the plot, the bland affluence of the main characters' lifestyle, and many scenes of Cornish making use of her extensive and varied collection of expensive lingerie just put me in mind of highbrow soft-core pornography with all the actual rumpy-pumpy edited out. But then again, soft-core porno doesn't usually have W.E.'s solemn fascination with the depiction of domestic violence in rather a lot of detail. It's never really clear what purpose this whole strand of the film serves – as it stands, it just makes the whole enterprise rather more absurd.
And, more than anything else, this is a film which is actively dull to watch. Neither of the romances ever ignites, none of the characters is engaging, and the script's revisionist view of Simpson as a tragic, misunderstood proto-feminist icon is never remotely convincing. Everything just staggers along, with moments and scenes only memorable for all the wrong reasons. Seldom does a film set such an overt agenda for itself and then so comprehensively fail to meet any of its targets. I never thought I would say this, but, Madonna: stick to acting in future.