W.E.'s a royal scandal! Madonna fails to read all about it
The queen of pop's film about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor ignores the evidence, dismissing allegations of Nazi sympathies and recasting the needy Edward as a brooding hunk
- Production year: 2011
- Country: UK
- Cert (UK): 15
- Runtime: 114 mins
- Directors: Madonna
- Cast: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy, James Fox, Judy Parfitt, Laurence Fox, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle
In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry his lover, Wallis Simpson. They became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Despite its critical panning, not everything about W.E. is terrible. The costumes are very nice. Andrea Riseborough gives a decent performance as Wallis – though admittedly the brittle, self-conscious dialogue is better suited to her character than to anyone else's. W.E. interweaves the story of the king and Mrs Simpson with the tribulations of a fictional New Yorker, Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), who is obsessed with Wallis. She attends the 1998 auction of the Windsors' belongings at Sotheby's, hallucinating Wallis's ghost as she idly fondles a pug-shaped cushion. Meanwhile, her marriage to a nasty doctor collapses and she falls for the auction's security guard. Regrettably, the modern characters are so facile that they barely qualify as two-dimensional. They're one-dimensional: a collection of straight lines resolutely failing to go anywhere except the way you already know they're going.
Critics have noticed that W.E. has a radio announcer in 1936 announce the death of King George III. That's two whole Georges out, plus a William, a Victoria and another Edward. A small mistake, but slapdash – and it's not alone. The paparazzi are shown chasing Wallis and Edward on a Mediterranean cruise, provoking headlines in British papers like: "Royal Scandal!" Though a picture of Wallis touching Edward's arm during that cruise in August 1936 was published outside Britain, the British newspapers famously covered the king's affair up. The king's friend, Lord Beaverbrook, convinced all his fellow newspapermen to agree to complete discretion. All they printed about that cruise was a passenger list with Wallis's name on it. British censors snipped more lurid reports out of foreign newspapers at customs. Consequently, most Britons had no idea about the affair until it came to abdication the following December.
The film dismisses the allegation that Wallis and Edward had sympathies with the Nazis. "Most of it is based on rumours," snaps Wally to her nasty doctor husband. "I thought doctors were into empirical evidence." It's not clear that screenwriters Madonna and Alek Keshishian know what "empirical" means for, if Wally wants evidence gathered through observation, there's plenty. For instance, a 1933 report by the Austrian ambassador that Edward said to him: "I hope and believe we will never fight another war but if we do, we must be on the winning side and that will be Germany, not the French". A public speech to the British Legion in 1935 in which he advised his audience to "stretch forth the hand of friendship to the Germans". A 1936 letter from the German ambassador to Adolf Hitler saying "King Edward, quite generally, feels warm sympathy for Germany". British Foreign Office papers suggesting that a Nazi plot to put Edward back on the throne when they invaded Britain was cooked up with Wallis's involvement. Wallis's notoriously dazzling smile on meeting Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1937. Edward's frequent Nazi salutes during that trip, and cheerful fraternisation with the likes of Josef Goebbels, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. Edward's own admission in an article he wrote for the New York Daily News in 1966 that "along with too many other well-meaning people, I let my admiration for the good side of the German character dim what was being done to it by the bad". There you go, Madge: a whole heap of empirical evidence. And that's without even getting into the rumours, which go far further.
For this film, Edward (James D'Arcy) has been transformed into a brooding hunk. In real life, his relationship with Wallis was needy from his side, infantilising from hers. One close friend, Mrs Humphrey Butler, recalled a scene at a dinner party when the then Prince of Wales asked Wallis for a light. "Have you done your duty?" Wallis asked. "Little man gets on his haunches, puts up his hands and begs like a dog," remembered Mrs Butler. "She then lights his cigarette. Horrible to see." This wouldn't be cool, so instead the film shows them getting hopped up on champagne and Benzedrine before Wallis tucks her skirt into her knickers and dances with a shaven-headed black woman to the Sex Pistols' Pretty Vacant. Unlikely on several counts. Though Pretty Vacant would have made an apt title for this movie.
Pretty, but vacant.