W.E. is being declared a bomb after its Venice world premiere, even before it’s screened anywhere else. But Madonna’s movie should have a second wind. It’s no masterpiece but it’s an ambitious second film which should recover and find its audience.
It isn’t easy being Madonna. She was a number one pop star for almost two decades before the music establishment embraced her and now she is getting what can only be described as a thrashing at the hands of the film media for her second movie as a director W.E. The British press in particular – as might be expected for a film by an American interloper about the Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII affair – was aggressively snotty, but it’s perhaps alarming to see how a handful of Venice reviews has started an avalanche of declarations around the world that the film is a disaster even before it’s screened anywhere else.
The redoubtable Hollywood columnist Nikki Finke, for example, proclaimed in a story titled “Death In Venice” that the film was a bomb and that US distributor The Weinstein Company would have to rethink its former enthusiasm after the “crushingly lousy” Venice response.
Now not that Madonna isn’t used to this kind of extreme reaction, but I have to say I find it somewhat unfair. The film is no masterpiece and much of the 1998 storyline is misguided, but nor is it a turkey. Far from it. There is some impressive work in there, especially in scenes surrounding Wallis and Edward in the run-up to the abdication. Some of the performances are strong, the production is fine and there is genuine emotion in the finale which had the woman sitting next to me in the Sala Darsena sobbing her heart out. More than anything, it’s a film of grand ambition and considerable risk, rare commodities in any movies these days.
Let’s face it, if W.E. weren’t directed by Madonna, it would have received a far kinder response in Venice. The response it got, certainly by the Brits, was perhaps pre-ordained.
So can the film recover? Well, it’s playing in Toronto and London next and I’m guessing it could have a second wind as audiences will be caught by surprise at how much they enjoy it. That surprise factor – “it’s not so bad after all” – could help the film pick up some steam commercially when it opens to paying audiences in the US, UK and around the world. If the female audiences who enjoyed Julie & Julia can be persuaded to see W.E., I think they will enjoy it. The contemporary section in that film was also overshadowed by the period sequences, but it worked at the box office.
Ultimately of course, Madonna is the best – and worst – element in the marketing package for this film. On the one hand, she attracts publicity like nobody else – and the frenzy for the critics to get into both her screening and press conference in Venice was a sight to behold. On the other hand, she is a controversial music star attempting to make a splash in the movie business. And the media loves to tear down what they readily proclaim as pretenders. Ask any rock star from Sting to Bowie to Jagger to McCartney about the bruises they received from film critics. Give My Regards To Broad Street, anyone?
Never mind that Madonna has acted in films by Warren Beatty, Alan Parker, Woody Allen, John Schlesinger and Abel Ferrara. What does she know about movies?
In the meantime, W.E. is far from dead in the water, and real audiences might actually enjoy it. If this were any other movie from a second-time director, it would have far less to prove. But then nobody said it was easy to be Madonna.