"W.E.": Portrait of the playgirl who won a king

I'm almost always happy to see a movie about a woman.

It follows, then, that I should be doubly happy this early in the new year that The Weinstein Co. has given us not one, but two biopics about a pair of the most polarizing figures in 20th-century England. Margaret Thatcher is the subject of Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady; Wallis Simpson of Madonna's W.E.

But I am more fascinated than happy with these fascinating and flawed profiles, one about England's first female prime minister and the other about the twice-wed American playgirl for whom a British king abdicated his throne. Fascinated because on screen it's still rare to see marriage from the perspective of a female director.

While Lloyd frames the marriage of Margaret and Denis Thatcher as nontraditional and mutually supportive, Madonna's film likens Simpson's marriage to Edward VIII to a prison with room service and what you might call a maxi-bar.

Madonna's partner on the film's convoluted script is Alek Keshishian, director of Truth or Dare. Together, they confected this two-tier account of Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) who won her royal trophy husband in the 1930s; and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), her fictional 1990s namesake, a trophy wife.

The parallels between Wallis and Wally are . . . not so parallel, although the script presents them as soulful Americans hitched to soulless Brit-twits. And as women who long for children. Their kindred-spirithood is established in an opening sequence where Wallis suffers a miscarriage after her first husband physically abuses her and Wally struggles with infertility problems that her emotionally abusive husband does not want to talk about.

When Wally visits Sotheby's for the 1998 auction of the belongings of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, first the objects speak to her. Then, the late duchess materializes to advise and to commiserate. The objects - Windsor table linens, the Duchess' distinctive Cartier jewelry, her silken undergarments - drive the story rather than the characters who are stuck in marriages and unstuck in time. This is a chronology-challenged movie that boasts flashbacks within flashbacks and captions identifying where and what year its characters are without building any narrative momentum.

Madonna the director deserves a script better than the one Madonna the screenwriter handed off to her. The movie is full of incidents that don't quite cohere into a story - kind of like a Power Point presentation without a throughline.

While the artfully presented film is approximately as cinematic as the layouts in a tony shelter magazine, what's worth watching is Riseborough's performance, compelling even when the film pooh-poohs the generally accepted knowledge that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were Nazi sympathizers. When Riseborough, who resembles a little brown wren, spreads those tiny wings, she's a bird of paradise in Cartier baubles.

Swanning down burnished-wood corridors in Schiaparelli and Mainbocher, advising on flower arrangements and the height of candles ("light should be at eye level to be flattering!"), Riseborough's Wallis is a melancholy figure resigned to being a decorative object for the man who wouldn't be king.

Finally, this movie besotted with manicured gardens and fingernails, sparkling jewels and champagne, couturier gowns, chrome-ribbed roadsters and other status symbols, hypocritically moralizes that such things mean little. Madonna, don't preach: If material things mean so little, why photograph them with such obvious care? If the story of the commoner who becomes a duchess is a horror story, why present it like a glittering fairy tale?

She may romanticize high-1930s style, but in the end, Madonna does not romanticize the Windsor marriage. I heard my heart crack when Wallis, unmerry wife of Windsor, delivers the verdict on her royal spouse: "He used me to escape his prison only to incarcerate me in one of my own."

Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com.


Directed by Madonna. With Annabelle Wallis, Natalie Gal, Richard Coyle, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Dormer, Abbie Cornish, James D'Arcy, Christina Chong, James Fox, Oscar Isaac. Distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Running time: 1 hours, 29 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for some domestic violence, nudity, and language).