After seeing 'The King's Speech' last year and witnessing the agonizing insecurity and crippling infirmity King George VI had to endure and overcome after his self-centered brother, David, dumped the English throne in his lap so he could carelessly cavort around the globe with his American concubine, Wallis Simpson, I wanted to learn more about the fabled Duke and Duchess of Windsor. What really motivated David to make such a rash, selfish, and controversial decision? Was he manipulated by Wallis? Was she a heartless gold-digger or a misunderstood scapegoat who truly loved David? What was their life really like after his abdication? Was theirs a triumphant love story or an epic tragedy?
Right on cue, a film called 'W./E.' appeared on the radar, primed to answer virtually all of my questions. And though I wasn't naive enough to believe this intimate account of one of the most notorious romances in all of history would be as informative as a documentary or biography, I at least hoped to get a clearer picture of the dynamics of the relationship, the motivations behind the couple's actions, and a probing look behind the closed doors of their jet-setting lives. I also must (sheepishly) admit my interest in the movie escalated when I learned it was directed and co-written by Madonna. Maybe if anyone could get under the skin of a supposedly misunderstood, often reviled woman like Wallis Simpson and depict the high-flying lifestyle, private torture, and obsessive culture of celebrity, it would be the Material Girl herself.
Sure, the trailer alluded to another, modern-day love story told simultaneously with the heart-wrenching tale of the Duke and Duchess, but I dismissed that bit of drivel as a mere springboard for the weightier chronicle of the illicit couple who shook the very foundation of the British monarchy. Any filmmaker worth his or her salt, even a novice like Madonna, I told myself, would certainly possess the good sense to realize concentrating on a fictional contemporary yarn over a potent true-life historical romance would be tantamount to cinematic hari-kari, right?
Boy, was I wrong!
'W./E.' is not so much about David and Wally as it is about the morose, almost catatonic Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a young woman named after the Duchess who's trapped in a stifling marriage with the abusive William (Richard Coyle). Wally is fascinated with the Windsors, and an upcoming auction of their possessions inspires her to learn about them. As she delves deeper into their lives, she draws parallels to her own unhappy predicament, especially as she forges a union with Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a security specialist at the auction house. More research results in a deeper understanding of the Duchess' rich yet troubled life, and inspires the 21st century Wally to change the way she lives her own.
After slogging through the plodding, maddeningly inert 'W./E.,' I couldn't understand the necessity for the modern story at all, a gimmick that's not only trite, but also dreadfully dull. And unfathomably, Madonna chooses to focus on it to the exclusion of the far more absorbing tale of the Windsors. Who gives a hoot about an expressionless yuppie who speaks in hushed monotones and her equally stoic, mumbling lover when you've got a lively, complex icon of style and controversy like Wallis Simpson and the weak-willed Edward VIII jockeying for attention? Did Madonna feel a straight biopic would be too stodgy, too uncommercial, too difficult to faithfully produce? Did she really feel we needed a modern hook to go back in time? How could someone who usually has her finger on the pulse of what stokes the public's passions get this one so terribly wrong?
What's really sad about 'W./E.' is that the historical sequences are quite good and foster in us a thirst for more knowledge about the intriguing lives of the Windsors. Both James D'Arcy as Edward and especially Andrea Riseborough as Wallis contribute finely etched, natural portrayals that bring these larger-than-life figures down to earth. Madonna complements their work with a fine visual sense, crafting some stimulating images (even if some do rely a bit too heavily on music video conventions), and her attention to period detail is quite good. Though in the pop diva-turned-director category she's no Barbra Streisand, Madonna definitely has potential, but needs to work on pacing and her storytelling technique.
As a superficial look at the lives of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, 'W./E.' is adequate, but merging it with a totally uninteresting contemporary story is a miscalculation of mammoth proportions. Why filmmakers continually underestimate their audiences and feel compelled to make historical films supposedly more palatable by masking their content baffles me. More often than not, they end up ruining what could have been a stellar production, and sadly, just such a fate has befallen the heavy-handed, asphyxiating 'W./E.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'W./E.' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case that holds a Blu-ray disc, a standard-def DVD, and a digital copy disc, which enables the movie to be played on portable devices. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted in the player, previews for 'Coriolanus,' 'My Week with Marilyn,' and 'The Iron Lady' precede the full-motion menu with music.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer possesses a lush look that complements the romantic nature of this dual love story. Light grain adds a nostalgic feel to the period sequences and a cozy warmth to the modern portion of the story. Colors are nicely saturated, often sporting an iridescent glow that's pleasing to the eye. Fleshtones are natural and accurate, and black levels exude an inky depth that lends several scenes a palpable impact. Nary a speck, scratch, or mark sullies the pristine source material, which benefits from excellent contrast and a crystal clarity that allows bakground elements to be easily discernible.
Close-ups show off facial details well, but the image lacks that vibrant dimensionality that distinguishes the best Blu-ray transfers. Shadow delineation is good, crush is never an issue, and no distractions, such as noise, banding, or pixelation rear their ugly heads. Like many new releases, this one sports a smooth, elegant presentation that's easy on the eyes, but never will be regarded as demo material.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track gets the job done, but there's not much opportunity for sonic fireworks on this rather subdued audio presentation. Dialogue is the driving force here, and it's well prioritized and always easy to understand. Abel Korzeniowski's music score comes across cleanly and possesses fine fidelity and good tonal depth, effortlessly wrapping around the viewer. Other surround activity, however, is rather muted, never providing the directional excitement more action-oriented movies supply.
Stereo separation up front is crisp and distinct, and bass frequencies add subtle weight to the proceedings. A strong dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, and no distortion or other imperfections are present. All in all, this is a smooth, unobtrusive track that won't turn heads, but won't provoke cringes either.
Only one extra is included on the disc. A full-fledged documentary about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor really would have enhanced this presentation, but also might have been more interesting than the film itself.
The modern day portions of 'W./E.' belong in the W.C., but the historical sections focusing on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their rocky love affair are quite interesting and provide a glimmer of what a full-fledged biopic might have looked like. Unfortunately, the bulk of 'W./E.' is deadly dull, never maximizing the potential of its story or director. Like Madonna herself, 'W./E.' looks good, but substance comes at a premium. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray features solid video and audio, but is painfully slim on supplements, making this anemic dual love story easy to skip.