Despite Lady Gaga’s sustained attempts to usurp her as the Queen of Pop, Madonna remains a formidable force of nature in the music industry.
She boasts the most number one singles in the UK of any female solo artist and proudly claims the Guinness World Record as the top-selling female artist of all time with estimated global album sales of 300 million.
However, repeated attempts to expand her creative empire on to the stage and screen have proved less fruitful.
Her 2002 West End theatre debut as an art dealer in the comedy Up For Grabs was underwhelming.
In front of the camera, she has weathered stinging criticism about her acting with the notable exception of a memorable portrayal as Evita Peron, which earned her a coveted Golden Globe.
Her 2008 directorial debut Filth And Wisdom was eviscerated by the media and now Madonna sets herself up for another fall with her second feature behind the camera, which explores the tumultuous romance of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson that rocked the British monarchy to its foundations.
Co-written by Alek Keshishian, W.E. unfolds initially in 1998 Manhattan where Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is trapped in an abusive marriage to husband William (Richard Coyle).
“I wish we could have sex without the constant need for you to get pregnant,” he sneers after one abortive attempt at seduction.
Wally becomes obsessed with a Sotheby’s auction of precious trinkets from the Windsor estate belonging to Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and her royal suitor (James D’Arcy).
She becomes a regular visitor to the pre-auction showcase, seeking sanctuary in flashbacks to Wallis’s trials and tribulations.
Wally imagines Edward’s pleas to his parents (James Fox, Judy Parfitt) and stammering brother Bertie (Laurence Fox) - “I will always love her. All I can ask is that you do the same” - and the paparazzi swarm that engulfed the couple’s every move.
“You have no idea how hard it is to live out the greatest romance of the century,” laments Wallis to one confidante.
Back at the auction, Russian security guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) catches Wally’s eye, offering an escape from her violent and loveless relationship.
W.E. is peppered with flickers of directorial flair, including a stunning tracking shot of umbrellas in the rain cocooning Cornish from a sudden downpour.
Costumes and art direction are impressive - just what you would expect from a material girl like Madonna.
However, the director’s obvious affinity with Simpson - a strong American woman, whose private affairs were splashed across the front pages of the voracious British media - clouds her judgment.
The script is a mess and the 1990s sequences feel laboured.
Despite tour-de-force performances from Riseborough and Cornish, this snapshot of a bygone era fails to capture our hearts like The King’s Speech, which dealt with the abdication with brevity and wit.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 5/10
Released: January 20, 119