It shouldn't be surprising that a movie directed by Madonna would be more concerned with lavish production design, stunning costumes and material girls than a convincing story.
Aesthetics easily trump storytelling in W.E., Madonna's second directorial effort (after 2008's Filth and Wisdom).
But it is startling just how vapid the intertwined tales are. The dialogue is particularly wooden, and the entire project feels more like an extended music video than a narrative film.
Madonna and co-screenwriter Alek Keshishian try to fuse the threads of two very different tales, set several eras apart, to provide elucidation on the nature of love.
But there's not much illumination to be had. There is, however, plenty of pretentious folderol. Clothes, jewelry and expensive trinkets are fraught with superficial symbolism.
The more intriguing of the two stories centers on the 1930s romance and marriage of chic American divorcée Wallis Simpson and Great Britain's King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to marry her. (The title stands for Wallis and Edward.)
Andrea Riseborough is the film's highlight as Simpson. She conveys intelligence, humor and style. Unfortunately, the script does not rise to her portrayal. There is little sense of the real person underneath the caustic jokes and impeccable outfits. There is even less sense of her regal romancer. James D'Arcy plays the besotted Edward in a rather featureless and forgettable portrayal.
Jumping forward to 1998, the second story is about Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) and her fascination with Simpson. Married to a self-absorbed and abusive psychiatrist, Wally roams New York City in a state of gloomy reverie. She forges an unlikely bond with Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a guard at Sotheby's, where she goes often to look at the royal paraphernalia about to be auctioned.
The disparate strands of the two stories never make much sense the way they're braided together. Presumably, the more Wally learns about the sacrifices Wallis made, the more she is emboldened to follow her heart and leave her own unhappy marriage. Yet what she uncovers about the Duke and Duchess is not always pretty.
History is interspersed with conjecture, which is nothing new in films. But there's a startlingly anachronistic moment in which Simpson is high on drugs and dancing wildly to the Sex Pistols. Perhaps the notion is that if she had lived in a later era, this is the party girl she might have been. Whatever Madonna's motive, the scene, interjected in the stately though boozy lives that Wallis and her royal husband lead, comes off as ridiculously forced.
One aspect, however, is right on the mark: The Sex Pistols song that Simpson gyrates to is Pretty Vacant, which accurately sums up the film.