Saturday, 21 January 2012

Movie #8 W.E.

In a previous life I used to work in the book trade; non-book friends would assume that I reserved my professional ire for the kind of books that clog up airport lounges: the misery memoirs, the Da Vinci Code ripoffs, the chick-lit. In fact not. These books, while not my cup of tea, service a legitimate market and deserve their place on the shelf. No, what got my goat where the multitudes of books that got published not through their quality or marketability, but because the aspirant author clearly knew-someone-who-knew-someone. Of course, that's the way things go sometimes, but the fact is a lot of stuff gets printed that is of little worth artistically or commercially, taking up editorial expertise and marketing budgets that could have been far better spent on projects procured on merit.

The movie business, which releases far fewer individual packages and thus subjects them to greater scrutiny, tends to suffer less from this, but every now and again a film like W.E. comes along. It's not quite a direct parallel, but the similarities are there. Plainly this film would never have been made, nor the script ever considered, were pop-star Madonna not behind it (directing and co-writing). It's probably not pushing things too far to call this a vanity project. The ostensible subject - Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee vilified by the British press for taking up with King Edward VIII, precipitating his abdication - has an obvious personal resonance (Andrea Riseborough in the lead bears a striking resemblance to La Ciccone), and the concurrent plotline in late-90s Manhattan gives us a Madge-proxy in Abbie Cornish, who is obsessed with and, ludicrously, chats to Wallis (in her head, presumably, though this is not clear) when not falling in love with dishy security guard Oscar Isaac.

Now, 'pretentious' is an awful word, misused and abused and I tend to avoid it (full disclosure: largely because I'm also regularly accused of being 'it') - but in the case of W.E. it's an entirely apt descriptor, in a true sense of the word, i.e. a pretence of intellectualism and sophistication, where there actually is none. In fact the film is so lacking in genuine emotional content, so superficial, that it makes Sofia Coppola look like Ken Loach. The been-there-done-that dual timeline framing device has been executed far, far better in the past (I'll just mention The Hours, to be going on with) and the more arch notions, such as superimposing an incongruous Sex Pistols track over a Charleston routine, are actually painful to watch.

In case it's not clear so far: I really disliked this film. Beyond the try-hard pretentiousness, the script is dreadful; the plot is all over the place and the dialogue is execrable (kudos to the actors - more on whom in a bit - for delivering the lines with straight faces). The characterisation is comically cliched; beyond the two love-interests the male characters are all either saps or monsters. Further, the modern plotline of Abbie Cornish and Oscar Isaac is simply pointless, yet we spend the majority of the film with them; a production on a tighter leash would've discarded it from the outset in favour of concentrating on Wallis and Edward, whose story is genuinely compelling. It's fashionable to talk about 'stakes' in storytelling, as in 'what is at stake' at the story's pressure points. The stakes here are enormous, yet they are squandered in favour of attempting to burnish the directorial hand with a kind of undergraduate edginess, an approach which flatly fails anyway.

Oh yes, the direction. Where to start?  It lurches from the merely artless to the excruciatingly ham-fisted. Think of a triangulation somewhere between the most pretentious music video you've ever seen, an attempt at lush Gosford Park period drama and the unfathomable Mr Plow advertisement from The Simpsons. I'm not sure whether Madonna is actively trying to disorientate the audience with her unhinged mish-mash of film stocks and periodic shaky-cam/crash-zoom, but I presume its a stab at a some kind of visual manifesto or directorial identity. If so, it fails.

Then there's a moral problem at the heart of the film too. Abbie Cornish's character reflects the director's own obsession with the great-and-good, and the reflected glory that can be gained from their company. The flipside of this coin is the disdain with which 'ordinary' folk are received; incapable as they are of having an internal or external life anywhere near as compelling as the Monte Carlo set. The film revels in the wasting of vast sums of money on trinkets, and the ordering around of flunkies ( Isaac's security guard gets a pass because he's an Russian intellectual/concert pianist inexplicably 'slumming' in his shift work). Worst/best of all is the portrayal of the loyal, grimy-faced, forelock-tugging (and, happily for the couple, non-Jewish) peasants, gladly receiving royal benediction; the sort of nonsense that would be laughed out of a Mills & Boon romance. I may be wrong, and the use of Pretty Vacant may simply be a meta-joke about the films' vacuity - but I doubt it.

On the plus side, the actors somehow manage to emerge unscathed. The costumes are predictably gorgeous (and if you like your mens' tailoring, there are at least some fabulous suits to ogle - though its not quite A Single Man). In fact, the production design as a whole is a triumph, at least for the Wallis & David sequences. But if that's what you're after, go and visit a stately home, or the V&A. Don't watch this - not even out of curiosity.