Postcard from Venice: Is Madonna's W.E. a Portrait of Wallis Simpson or a Fantasy Shopfest?

Because of an early-morning badge snafu, I was unable to catch the press screening of Roman Polanski's Carnage, the movie I was most looking forward to seeing here in Venice. Add that to the fact that I arrived here too late to see The Ides of March, and it's a double bummer. But my consolation prize was not bad -- at least in a so-bad-it's-almost-good kind of way: I did get to see Madonna's W.E., which is in some ways just the kind of movie you'd expect from an artist who once, with a delightful lack of irony, declared herself a material girl.

A weirdly sympathetic portrait of Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom a king gave up his throne, W.E. is the story of a life told through stuff: Evening gloves, cocktail shakers, baubles from Cartier, little hats trimmed with netting. It's as if Madonna went back in time and forgot to talk to actual people, to find out how they lived and what they thought -- but she sure did a lot of shopping.

And that's OK, as far as it goes. W.E., which is showing here out of competition, is at times comically bad. But it's also criminally watchable: Even through its many dull patches, where Madonna felt the need to carefully frame characters in doorways and hallways for no good reason, I couldn't take my eyes off it. This is Madonna's second movie as a director (following the 2008 comedy Filth and Wisdom), and it's obviously her bid to make a classy period picture that people will take seriously. Harvey Weinstein, for one, already has: He's picked up W.E., perhaps hoping to repeat the magic formula that worked so well for him last year with The King's Speech, a movie set in the same era and dealing with some of the same characters, though the tone and approach of W.E. is very different.

W.E. is actually two intertwining stories -- or maybe, more accurately, two stories clumsily rubbing against each other in an awkward attempt to set off a spark. The first is the story, set in the late 1990s, of Wally Winthrop, a young New York society wife played by Abbie Cornish. Wally, it turns out, was named after the Duchess of Windsor -- her mother and grandmother were obsessed with the stylish American double divorcée who stole a king's heart. That helps explain why Wally, who's ignored -- and worse -- by her rich doctor husband (Richard Coyle), keeps stalking her former place of employment, which happens to be Sotheby's: The auction house is just about to sell off many of the Duchess's possessions, and since Wally used to work there, she can just go around lifting Wallis's crystal stemware off tables and removing nighties from their hangers to hold them up to herself in the mirror. A handsome Russian intellectual-slash-security guard (I kid you not), played by the winsome Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac, also happens to have a crush on Wally; he's a good guy to have around when you have a hankering to touch precious historical objects willy-nilly.

Wally has other problems -- she desperately wants a child, even as her scoundrel of a husband refuses to sleep with her. And so, interlocked with Wally's story, we get episodic glimpses into the life of her idol, Wallis (played, in a stroke of brilliant casting, by Andrea Riseborogh, who shares Mrs. Simpson's regal bearing; she has also appeared recently in Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock). It turns out Wallis was often unhappy, too! And that she made sacrifices in life! And that she wasn't the Nazi sympathizer she was made out to be! When Wally's husband tries to bring up the Duchess's hazy Nazi-loving past, Wally comes limping to her defense: "Most of that's based on rumor," she retorts. Later, Wally brings more irrefutable evidence to the Wallis Simpson pity party: "The whole world turned against her."

Madonna, who co-wrote the script with Alek Keshishian (the director of Madonna: Truth or Dare), isn't wrong about that. But do we much care? Madonna is actually following a decent impulse here: The desire to take an unlikable character and render her in shades beyond black-and-white. But even as viewed through the filmmaker's glassy, admiring eyes, Wallis isn't easy to care about. Madonna takes great pains to show how Mrs. Simpson tried to persuade her paramour to stay on the throne; but James D'Arcy, as the abdicator Edward VIII -- known to his close friends and family as David -- declared he couldn't live unless he could have the woman he loved by his side. What Madonna does capture is Edward's romantic naivete. Wallis does rattle a mean cocktail shaker. I guess it's easy enough to see how a guy's head -- even a royal head -- could get turned.

But W.E. is too much of a sprawl; the parallels between the two women are stretched uncomfortably, and Cornish, especially, is left with little to do. Madonna doesn't really have a point of view -- she wants to set the record straight on Wallis, but she doesn't have the ammunition or the skills to do it right. W.E. is filled with stylish, empty touches: After the young (and pregnant) Wallis is kicked in the stomach by her first husband, we see her lying on a sparkling white tile floor as a pool of crimson blood gathers around her nether region. It's the best-art-directed miscarriage I've seen all year.

But W.E. does try, at least, to put a few nicks and scratches in the concept of the "great love story." The title refers to the term Wallis and Edward used, privately, for themselves as a fused unit -- a forerunner of Bennifer, if you will. The idea of that sort of soulmate coupling is either wildly romantic to you, or it's stifling. Madonna isn't quite sure which side of that fence she's on, but at least she's keyed in to Wallis Simpson's practical side: No material girl would scoff at custom-made trinkets from Cartier, and when Edward does super-cute stuff like hide a diamond-encrusted cross in the bottom of her teacup, Wallis accepts with delight. "You certainly know the way to a woman's heart," she coos, to which he responds, "I wasn't aiming that high." That's Madonna's baser instinct at work, and W.E. could use more of it: The movie's shallowest moments are also its most honest.

Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's Venice Film Festival coverage here