W.E. is the second feature film credited to former MTV queen Madonna, and the second in about a year—after The King's Speech—to dramatize the empire-imperiling affair between King Edward (James D'Arcy) and American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), a woman who couldn't be queen. The movie was lambasted by critics at the fall festivals, with many citing a late-inning scene in which a Benzedrine-addled, circa-'30s Simpson dirty-dances to "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols as particularly indicative of its maker's cluelessness. But Madonna's anachronistic use of music is the least of her movie's problems. It's basic storytelling that stymies her. In telling of the Simpson affair through the blatantly whacked lens of Wally (Abbie Cornish), an unhappy trophy wife in late-'90s Manhattan who becomes obsessed with the "fairy tale" romance of Wallis and Edward when the couple's effects are auctioned by Sotheby's, Madonna borrows heavily from the music-video form she has already mastered: aesthetics first, with an anything-is-possible anti-logic. There is a kernel of a fascinating film here about the dangers of coveting luxuries (particularly someone else's) and of imbuing beautiful things with imagined life. But as Wally's story goes on (and on and on . . . ), the film falls increasingly deeper into the fetishization it takes as its subject, repeatedly imbuing clothes and jewelry with heavy symbolism, forgetting any impulse to critique. Still, a shot of a pearl necklace falling off a woman as her husband is beating her is too dumb to really gall.
In the movie's modern half, Cornish falls for a hunky security guard (Oscar Isaac).
Opens Fri., Feb. 10 at Seven Gables. Rated R. 119 minutes.