Named after the notorious Mrs Simpson, Wally (Cornish) is in a 1998 New York auction house examining a vast collection from the life of the British king who gave up the throne for the woman he loved. In swirling flashback, Wally's story is woven in with that of Edward (D'Arcy) and Wallis (Riseborough) in the 20s and 30s, including Wallis' marriages to the violent Win (Hayward) and the accommodating Ernest (Harbour). Meanwhile, Wally is stuck in a cold marriage to William (Coyle) and looked after by a kindly security guard (Isaac).
Based on exhaustive research, the script takes the female perspective, which gives the film a singular angle on the story. At one point, Wally even travels to Paris to read Wallis' private correspondence, clearly recreating the way Madonna found the intimate details. And it's a strong narrative that holds our interest even with the fragmented structure. Less effective are the forced parallels between the two strands and the vast mood swings from cheeky comedy to wrenching violence to political intrigue to sweet romance.
Cornish and Riseborough are terrific as the two Wallises, with Cornish delivering a more introspective, engaging performance while Riseborough chomps marvellously on her cigarette holder, as well as much of the scenery. With the exception of the almost impossibly sexy Isaac and D'Arcy's foppish Edward, the men are all distracted and rather nasty. Although the cruellest character here is Elizabeth (Dormer), aka the Queen Mum, who manipulates her stammering husband Bertie (Laurence Fox) into rejecting his brother.
These details make the movie entertaining, even if we have to put up with melodramatic storytelling and overwrought filmmaking. Sensually designed and shot, Madonna uses film stock from 8mm to 35mm to shift between periods and play with newsreel footage, period settings and a few surreal moments when the two Wallises meet. The film's sheer ambition makes it worth seeing. And by taking a woman's viewpoint, Madonna explores issues most filmmakers pretend don't exist. So even if it's a mess, it still has relevance and resonance.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th January 2012
Box Office USA: $0.6M
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 13%
Fresh: 13 Rotten: 91
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Producer: Kris Thykier, Colin Vaines
Screenwriter: Madonna, Alek Keshishian
Starring: Abbie Cornish as Wally Winthrop, Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson, James D'Arcy as Edward, Richard Coyle as William Winthrop, David Harbour as Ernest, James Fox as King George V, Judy Parfitt as Queen Mary, Haluk Bilginer as Al Fayed, Geoffrey Palmer as Stanley Baldwin, Natalie Dormer as Elizabeth, Laurence Fox as Bertie, Douglas Reith as Lord Brownlow, Katie McGrath as Lady Thelma, Christina Chong as Tenten, Oscar Isaac as Evgeni