Madonna's Ambition: A love story from the Material Girl

Madonna is not remembered for her appearances on the big screen, but for her music. Her attempts at acting have been mainly failures, except for "Evita" in 1996, where she sang for the majority of the film. Her personal life has even been, one might say, wrecked by film: her first marriage to the actor Sean Penn ended in divorce, as did her second marriage to British film director, Guy Ritchie. Still, somehow, the scandalous divorcee has weathered all odds and directed a new film, W.E., which opened nationally on February 3.

The film is very much Madonna’s movie; she not only directed it, but also co-wrote the screenplay. Her fellow screenwriter is Alek Keshishian, a Lebanon-born film director, best known for Madonna’s "Truth or Dare," the 1991 documentary that showcased her antics and debauchery during her Blond Ambition tour. Harvey Weinstein, the Oscar-winning Hollywood maven featured in the documentary 20 years ago, now serves as the executive producer of “W.E.” It is perhaps unsurprising that after so many cinematic failures, Madonna wanted to surround herself with long-term business partners she could rely on.

Foregoing a focus on her own life, the film hinges on the story of King Edward VIII, heir to the throne of the United Kingdom and dominions of the British Empire, as well as Emperor of India, and his abdication out of romantic passion for a mere commoner: the American socialite Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). The viewer sees their saga through the eyes of two modern characters who parallel the famous love story: Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), married to a renowned yet abusive psychiatrist, and a security guard at Sotheby’s (Oscar Isaac). The two meet as she visits a Wallis Simpson auction.

The tale is not a naive hymn to love, and graphic scenes of domestic violence are sure to disturb. Yet the voyeuristic spectacle, as seen by the roving camera at the outset of the film, is not gratuitous. Despite the shock-value of domestic violence, there is a quintessentially Christian, if not Catholic subtext to the film. If it is true that Madonna attempted to bury her Catholic faith during her years of waywardness, a late adolescence of sorts when she reveled in her brash impiousness, she still seems haunted by Holy Mother Church. This is not a godless picture.

The leitmotif of rise and fall lies at the center of the film, most notably as the king and his American wife are often remembered as Nazi sympathizers—arguably the most damning epithet modern history could bestow on a public figure. Madonna said she found no concrete evidence of this egregious association in her research while writing the script, aside from their meeting Hitler prior to the war as many leaders did. (She adds an ironic twist on modern celebrity, as the director claims she has been maligned unfairly by the press more than once.)

The film’s most searing scenes show us a broken female body, as when Wallis Simpson bleeds after her first husband beat her up. Or when her Wally Winthrop realizes her husband really does not want to have children and start a family. Enraged, she smashes all her fertility capsules into the sink, bleeding again. In both instances, the blood of Christ is reflected in the hands and groins of Mary-like figures.

Still, the film is not devoid of insouciance. Certainly the love that binds the king and Wallis at the beginning is winsome and carefree. So is the romantic bond of the modern-day couple. As she visits a Sotheby's exhibition of Wallis Simpson memorabilia, Wally Winthrop slowly falls in love with the security guard, a Russian-sounding immigrant who comes from a “'refugee camp in Vermont.”' Exoticism, the brainchild of romance, is a bit clichéd—but it sets the mood before the tide rises.

Transgression runs high as the film glamorizes divorce through both timelines. To be sure, there is an expected feminist touch, as both women decide to go out into the world and find something better out there rather than stay in their homes and work on their marriages. In this sense, Wallis Simpson is seen as a forward-thinking, headstrong woman rather than the unappealing imagine of a reckless and selfish wife. Interestingly, her indomitable character is reflected in her fashion style, as her dresses, hats and shoes always enhance her.
But men are not belittled by the film. In both cases, they are the ones to approach their prospective paramours and encourage them to start a relationship. The king, madly in love with the socialite, arranges for her divorce from her first husband, then rearranges his entire life to suit her. The security guard sees the hapless visitor in the auction hall and starts conversations with her every time she returns, until he brings her home. This traditional sociological pattern may indeed jar a viewer with preconceptions about the director. While both women are reminiscent of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, they are also deeply dependent on strong men. Perhaps the Material Girl, too, is more conservative than one might assume.  

The soundtrack has already been praised, as the theme-song, “Masterpiece,” won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song earlier this year. Yet it is not difficult to see why Madonna would be displeased if her cinematic work were remembered solely on the basis of its musical dimension. Evidently, this film was her attempt to make a masterpiece out of this historical love story. She falls short of such a feat, setting her expectations a little too high. Still, the film offers a refreshing perspective on a much-contested tale. Could this be a more mature Blond Ambition tour, chasing after artistic gravitas?

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john abrahams
6 years 10 months ago

I should in fairness be  more specific about my discomfort


with Mr. Stepien's review. Might the reviewer be straining to make

a dull film sound like a flawed masterpiece? I literally cringed

reading: "the blood of Christ is reflected in the hands & groins

of Mary-like figures." Likewise, "Blond Ambition tour...chasing

after artistic gravitas" is too rich a sauce, too pretentious for

a first film. In sum, the review sounds much too grand for the subject.

The reviewer's artistry is stealing the show-not Madonna's film. 

john abrahams
6 years 10 months ago
Louis Templeman
6 years 10 months ago

When Madonna first appeared I was a very fundamentalist young adult.  Nevertheless, there was something appealing and authentic and artistic about her.  I have followed her through the years and am glad to see, now in my senior years as a Catholic, that she is treated seriously and respectfully by the Catholic press.  I think I  will go see the film based on this review.  Enjoyed it. Well done.

Louis Templeman

Eileen Gould
6 years 10 months ago

Commenter #1, "Abrahams" says it all for me.  Initially I wasn't going to comment, specifically because of my discomfort with Mr. Sepien's review.   I don't know how we can take seriously a fairy tale about the King and Mrs. Simpson.   I too "literally cringed reading "the blood of Christ, etc."   Perhaps America sees something in this film and review which led them to print it.   I'd love to know what.

Zachary Johnson
6 years 10 months ago

What an insightful reviewer. I wasn't going to see this movie but now I think I will. It's great to relate it to the Catholic church also. Thank you America!

William Todd
6 years 10 months ago

My girlfriend's been begging me to see this movie. I guess we will. I didn't know it was that good.

Carlos Orozco
6 years 9 months ago

Why applaud the sacriligious and pretentious? The aged Material Girl has not changed.


Michelle Brock
6 years 9 months ago
So the women should "stay in their homes and work on their marriages" according to Stepien. Since when does battery define a marriage? -And what would working on a marriage filled with battery look like? A prison of fear, blood and pain, not to mention the bruises in body, mind and soul is the truthful answer to that question. Assault and violence do not make a marriage. It takes courage to leave and profound bravery to look for hope after living through a hell of a "marriage" like that. -But those are just my thoughts as a survivor of domestic violence. I think the women in this film show that there is redemption after suffering so greatly. Despite the flaws and transgressions of these characters, the women in the film embody sacrificial love and show perseverance in the face of incredible suffering. I think that the security guard is much like the Good Samaritan of the Gospel who tends to Wally's wounds in body, mind and heart showing true compassion and love.
Charles Lewis
6 years 9 months ago

For the life of me I don't understand how the Nazi connection is so glossed over. The British secret service were relieved when the pro-Nazi Edward left the Throne. God only knows what he would have done to force the British Parliament to appease Hitler. Maybe Madonna should have studied harder. Maybe she didn't want a little Nazism to get in the way of her "love" story. 

sunk night
5 years 5 months ago
I saw this movie at the cinema with a couple of my friends, it was nice to watch a movie directed by Madonna. I did not believe at first when I heard that she also co-wrote the screenplay, guess she wanted to try something new and it worked. I know that she likes horror movies, will she write a screenplay for a horror like House at the end of the street movie? She could win a Golden Globe Award easily, her talent is immense.


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