[Christianity Today Movies; Feb 10, 2012]
Rating: R for some domestic violence, nudity, and language.
Directed by: Madonna
Cast: Abbie Cornish (Wally Winthrop), James D’Arcy (Edward), Andrea Riseborough (Wallis Simpson), Oscar Isaac (Evgeni), Richard Coyle (William Winthrop)
As the last scene of this movie faded away, replaced by a screen reading “Directed by Madonna,” I asked my companion, “If you’d known ahead of time that Madonna was the director, would you have enjoyed this movie as much?” He replied, “Honestly, no.”
So let’s first focus on the positive aspects of this movie, which Madonna not only directed but helped write and produce. It retells the love story of King Edward VIII of England and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced commoner from Baltimore, MD, for whom Edward renounced his throne. In his abdication speech, on Dec. 11, 1936, he said, “I have found it impossible …to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love,” fluttering womanly hearts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Without a doubt, this is a beautiful movie. There’s an old saw about a Broadway musical so lavish that “you walk out humming the sets;” with W.E., you walk out humming the costumes. The dressing and accessorizing is so exquisite and eye-pleasing, in fact, that the movie has been nominated for an Oscar in “Costume Design.” Impressive visuals don’t end there; the lighting and camerawork are entrancing throughout, and we’re provided with a feast for the eyes in elegant homes and landscapes. The choice of Andrea Riseborough to portray Wallis Simpson was wise, and restrained; she doesn’t appear as a conventional beauty, but as a plain woman who compensates by dressing with great style. She can’t fill a dress, being rather more bony than shapely, but she can bring a dress to life, and capture every eye.
This story has been told many times before, both in film and books, and Wallis and Edward are regularly portrayed with feet of clay. Whatever her other merits, Wallis was perhaps an opportunist, an expert manipulator, and it seems widely agreed that Edward was “besotted” with her. They inhabited a world of wealth and social status, but one dedicated to endless pleasure rather than duty or responsibility. Both had already been through multiple affairs, Edward having a particular weakness for married women.
You can’t read much about Edward without forming the impression that he sounds like a twit. He couldn’t understand why it was inappropriate to socialize with Nazis. He couldn’t see why it was inappropriate to listen to the announcement of his accession with the still-married Mrs. Simpson by his side. He didn’t care that the Australian delegation disapproved of his marrying Wallis, because there are “not many people in Australia.” He had the royal coin struck with his profile facing left, not right as tradition preferred, because he wanted to show the part in his hair.
Edward’s private secretary conjectured that “for some hereditary or physiological reason, his normal mental development stopped dead when he reached adolescence.” If you enjoyed last year’s The King’s Speech, about his brother Bertie, King George VI, overcoming a speech impediment, you’ll recall an unflattering depiction of Edward and Wallis. Their father, King George V, prayed that the succession would skip over Edward and pass directly to brother Bertie.
So there are tensions and temptations within the Edward-and-Wallis story which make it promising material for movie exploration. But, unfortunately, that story is only one layer of this movie, and it is a jumbled and fractured layer. Covering it like chocolate on a truffle is a story set in 1998, in which an unhappily-married woman named Wally Winthrop (her mother and grandmother were “obsessed with” Wallis Simpson, she says) keeps returning to Sotheby’s to linger over a display of Wallis and Edward’s personal property, in the days before it is auctioned. The movie’s linear story follows Wally, and we keep dipping into Wallis’s life at various points in time.
Unfortunately, the Wally story is completely banal. She has a bad, bad, cheating-and-beating, high-society husband, and meets at Sotheby’s a sympathetic, manly security guard named Evgeni (“a Russian intellectual slumming as a security guard,” we’re told, in one of many flashes of overly-obvious exposition). There is no element of the Wally-and-Evgeni story that would surprise you. It comes straight out of the can. The Wallis-and-Edward story is the one with intriguing dark corners, the one we’d like to know better. But the film gives us only chopped-up fragments of that story, presented with little subtlety. Here, Wallis is a wholly sympathetic character, and Edward has been rehabilitated into a hero for our time. Contemporary news reports hail him as the “popular King Edward” and “the strong-minded prince,” and Wally tells us the evidence for Nazi friendships is “gossip.”
The overarching concept is that Wally wants to understand Wallis’s story, believing that we only hear about what Edward sacrificed. Wallis summarized her own life by saying, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance,” and surely she experienced the isolation and hounding by the media that come with celebrity. But it’s hard to be sympathetic about a life lived in such luxury. The camera’s doting gaze upon these clothes and accessories, the gloves, necklaces, pillboxes, and so on, presents a world that is beautiful and skillfully made, surely, but beyond the reach of most filmgoers.
Not beyond the reach of the filmmaker, though. This is no doubt the sort of quality Madonna can afford in her everyday life, and shopping for such things must be very enjoyable. That’s the funny thing about the movie’s display of gorgeous personal appointments, the way it takes that world for granted. When Wally pays $10,000 at auction for a pair of Wallis’ gloves, we are openly prodded to savor this gotta-be-me moment; every time she makes a bid the others at the auction whoop with joy, and every time her opponent makes a bid they let out a regretful “Awww.” But most of us don’t live in worlds where paying $10,000 for a pair of gloves is a reasonable indulgence. On the other hand, when Wally visits Evgeni’s Brooklyn, we’re given a condescending view of the colorful people there: look, rabbis and yeshiva students! Look, African-Americans making music! Evgeni isn’t really lower-class, for he has a spacious, shabby-chic apartment with many bookshelves (how reassuring, he reads Rilke), and a baby grand piano which he plays most sensitively.
For the Christian viewer, there’s a sharply paradoxical moment along these lines. Edward forms a habit of giving Wallis jeweled crosses, about 2” long, each one paved with stones of a different color. We see Wallis walking down a city street wearing the collection as a charm bracelet, the crosses banging against each other with every step she takes—the cross reduced to a precious, glittering display of wealth. When she opens the gift box containing one of the crosses she unfolds a note from Edward that reads: “All for love, and the world well lost.”
Is that what it means to give up the world, or to take up your cross? It’s worth reflecting on our Lord’s word: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26).
Talk About It
1. Based on what we learn in the film from Wallis’s letters, what were the sorrows and difficulties that she endured after she married Edward? What do you think of the use of Psalm 55:13?
2. Many kings of England have had mistresses, and Edward might well have continued as king if he had kept Wallis away from the public eye. Why, do you think, did he insist instead on marrying her and establishing her publicly and legally as his wife? Does this show an admirable aspect of his character?
3. Do you think that Wally’s obsession stems from a desire to be the recipient of single-minded devotion, as Wallis was? How does that line up with Wallis breaking the heart of her husband Ernest, and not giving him her own faithful devotion?
The Family Corner
There are two disturbing scenes of domestic violence, one extended. There is some sexual behavior, though little nudity, which includes a brief rear-nude flash of a male actor.