A ghost story spliced with a romance spliced with a biopic. About a pair of Nazi royals. Directed, written and produced by Madonna. What could possibly go wrong?
Predictably, almost everything. Not least the baffling decision to intercut the historical narrative of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson with a pointless tale of a modern-day posh New Yorker, also called Wallis. We follow her tedious search for love, advised along the way by the ghost of Mrs Simpson.
The film jumps back and forth confusingly between Historical Wallis and Modern Wallis. The dialogue is ridiculous. The acting is dreadful. And the politics are atrocious.
The Nazi sympathies of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (see below) are at best glossed over and at worst defended. We are told they are Nazis—but only by Modern Wallis’s cartoonishly villainous husband.
What the reviews don’t prepare you for is how boring the film is. Most scenes consist of rich idiots mixing martinis or fawning over jewellery.
One of the very few socially useful functions performed by the rich is to act as an outlet for our fantasies of glamour. This lot don’t even manage that.
The most exciting moment in the film is at a Sotheby’s auction where Modern Wallis spends $10,000 on Nazi Wallis’s gloves. Which she later gives back to Ghost Wallis. No, don’t ask.
It’s sold as the romance of the century—the king renouncing his kingdom for love—yet it’s all so utterly prim and passionless.
But every now and then the tedium is punctuated by a scene so cringeworthy it leaves you gasping.
At one point Prince Edward visits a poverty-stricken Welsh mining village that resembles a Hovis advert. The proles doff their caps and politely bemoan their lot. Edward declares that “something must be done”.
This, apparently, was the real reason he was drummed out of office. Wallis chips in that Germany has got unemployment all sorted. No doubt the trains are pretty punctual there too.
There are other such moments, such as when Modern Wallis meets Mohammed al-Fayed for a chinwag about the beastly treatment of foreigners who get mixed up with the royals.
But the prize has to go to the party scene where the Duke and Duchess and chums get off their faces on speed. And dance with their funky black supermodel friends. To the Sex Pistols.
No, really. The moment the opening chords of Pretty Vacant drift in through the loudspeakers, your mind cries “no, Madge, don’t do it”. But she does it. And you’re left speechless.
Alas these flashes of inadvertent surrealism hardly make up for the awfulness of the rest of the film.
There has been a bit of a pop cultural turn towards poshos of late. Downton Abbey. The King’s Speech. Even Doctor Who has replaced its multiracial council estate with an English village and a Tory time lord. But W.E. makes the rest of the sorry pack look like Brideshead Revisited.
Curiously it left me feeling a bit nostalgic for the culture wars of the 1980s. Roxy Music’s Avalon might have been reactionary tripe but at least it served up something that could be called aspirational—an impossible aristocratic grandeur, perhaps.
But who on earth would want to aspire to W.E.? This film is how bourgeois culture ends—not with a bang but a whimper. Time to burn it down.
Truth about the fascist duchess
The official story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson is that Edward gave up the throne in 1936 for the woman he loved.
This is the version of events contained in W.E. and presented in almost all popular accounts of the abdication. It is a pack of lies.
The British establishment did not object to Edward and Wallis’s romantic entanglement. They objected to the consequences of their fascist political sympathies.
By the late 1930s it was clear that the interests of Britain’s bosses were on a collision course with those of Nazi Germany. Pro-Nazi sympathies—until then rife among the British ruling classes—swiftly became an embarrassment.
Edward was particularly problematic on this count. His pro-Nazi views were blatant and recounted to anyone who would listen.
Wallis was an even darker character. Openly racist, she had consorted in fascist circles for decades and was a Nazi collaborator and spy.
An FBI file recounts how concocted “state secrets” were passed on to Edward and, via Wallis, soon found in the possession of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazis’ ambassador in London.
All this was the real reason why the establishment forced Edward to abdicate. The “love story” was made up to save the royal family’s blushes.
For more read Paul Foot’s 1988 article on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It appeared in the London Review of Books and can be read on their website at bit.ly/footwallis