Perhaps it was a sense of lowered expectations. Perhaps it was actually having no preset expectations... I don't know, but after seeing Madonna's W.E., I'm frankly surprised that so many critics came at it as negatively as they did.
Maybe it's just the fact of being Madonna. Who can say? But I suspect that it's more than just that - it's something about many (male) critics really not being able to accept women as directors (especially celebrity women like Madoona and, say, Streisand), both because of how they choose tell stories, and how they tend to put women into simple, easy, expected roles.
W.E. is fascinating - visually stunning, thematically compelling, rethinking a familiar story in a fresh, different way. While many complain about the use of a modern day story as a framing device for reconsidering the Duke and especially the Duchess of Windsor, that seems less likely to be problematic than the history Madonna chooses to rewrite around the Windsors. Though, even there, I find her argument persuasive.
Clearly, Madonna herself finds considerable identification with a woman as hounded by the press, mis-characterized and likely misunderstood as Wallis Warfield Simpson. Unlike even the most sympathetic portrayals, Madonna more or less ignores any and all suggestion that Mrs. Simpson was interested in becoming Queen of England, or that she had, really, any motive beyond companionship, and possibly a more comfortable life. It's not necessarily an entirely persuasive argument, but the film offers some interesting details, and makes a good case, I think, that Mrs. Simpson was and is probably best understood as a modern day courtesan, a woman who saw herself primarily in a role of attracting and supporting a successful man.
The film also presents the "great crisis" of the British Monarchy as largely inevitable, a confluence of ancient tradition, femilial disapproval, and political maneuvering (I'm not sure I entirely buy the "we're not Nazis" argument the film's pushing, either, but the politics of it seem accurate). At heart, Madonna presents Mrs. Simpson as a woman trapped by history - once you've been cast in the "Century's great love story", a romance that brought down a monarchy... you cannot just walk away. And, the film suggests, once in exile, Wallis wrote frequently of this sense of feeling trapped.
That revelation, and some other modern details come from the modern day story, about a woman also named Wallis, trapped in an unhappy marriage to a prominent Upper East Side psychiatrist, who finds an auction of the Duchess' personal possessions especially compelling. Through connections from her past work at Sotheby's, she gets access to the exhibition and befriends the head Security Guard. As the parallel stories develop, the modern day Wallis finds her marriage dissolving in tension and bitter fights. Eventually, after an especially abusive episode, Wallis is rescued by Evgeni, the Security Guard, at which point she finds her inner strength, and a final connection to Mrs. Simpson.
Madonna has always been a thorough and precise kind of star, and as a Director she is cautious and controlled, mostly to the good. Though the modrn day section is fairly dark, with unexpected and even extreme violence, her choices don't seem like mistakes. Even more succesful are her re-imaginings of the thirties and retelling the familiar incidents of the story of Edward and Mrs. Simpson.
Visually, the film is a feast, handsomely shot, beautifully costumed; only Tom Ford's recent exercise, A Single Man, strikes me as more deliberately striking to look at. Madonna's use of frequent closeups could seem suffocating, but she does an effective job of using these tight shots to speak to the artifice of many of the participants, then and now, their heavy makeup, facelifts, and other attempts to conceal their true feelings. Even the risky choice of having the two Wallises interact, which could easily spin out of control, works effectively because Madonna is clear about the story she's trying to tell.
Moreover, as a Director, Madonna draws out compelling performances from pretty much her entire cast. Both Abbie Cornish and Andrea Riseborough, as the two Wallises, are strong, striking presences onscreen, especially Riseborough as the Duchess, from start to finish. Cornish has the harder, more thankless role, but she doesn't succumb to easy suggestions about being a victim. Life is about choices, and her character is forced to grow, and make them, and she shows that progression well. James D'Arcy and James Fox, as the royal brothers Edward and George, are both well cast and play well off of each other. Richard Coyle does a nice job of making the modern day Wallis' husband both cipher-like, but not incomprehensible.
What's remarkable most, though, is how Madonna uses both stories to underline a strong thematic point, about how women's lives have changed, but the troublesome choices never entirely go away, especially where men are concerned. That's an insight that really can only come from a woman, and W.E. reminded how rare it is to really get a woman's perspective so fully (Madonna also co-wrote the script with Alek Keshishian, who she's known for years). And to find a beutiful, well realized film about a complex topic that combines both historicl perspective and modern day insight? Entirely rare. W.E., I think, may benefit, down the road from assessments that can separate the Madonna celebrity from Madonna the artist. Until then, I'm depressed that a real gem of a film will continue to be overlooked.