There’s half a pretty good movie in “W.E.,’’ and it’s the more conventional half by far. Since both halves were directed by Madonna, this comes as a shock. As much as our Madge may strain to remind us she’s relevant to the 21st century - and if that halftime show was a miracle of heavy lifting, it was also more absurdly entertaining than the Super Bowl has been in years - as a moviemaker she’s better when she’s not trying too hard. “W.E.,’’ her second effort after 2008’s “Filth and Wisdom,’’ tries awfully hard. In the end it tries our patience.
It’s the Wallis Simpson story, or much of it, paired with a modern day parallel drama about a neglected Manhattan wifey who loves the Simpson legend too much - the fairy-tale saga of a king who renounced his throne for a twice-divorced American commoner. Andrea Riseborough, a young actress seen mostly in British comedies like “Made in Dagenham,’’ plays Wallis, and she’s extremely good. She captures the ambition that made Simpson set her cap for Edward VIII (James D’Arcy), the blunt, wiry wit that entranced him, and the dawning horror that the trap Wallis has built - with love as much as cunning - has become her lifelong cell.
For her part, Madonna the filmmaker captures the headlong luxury of European high-life between the world wars. The gowns and cocktails are too too, the banter so very very, and the barely repressed hysteria is palpable behind all the gaiety. The director’s inexperience shows in some frantic camerawork and an over-reliance on time-and-place titles - practically every time a character walks from one room to another, we get “Buckingham Palace, 1936.’’ The scene in which Wallis and her partying pals dance to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant’’ isn’t as dreadful as reported, but neither is it necessary. It’s just Madonna letting us know she saw “Marie Antoinette,’’ too.
If “W.E.’’ had stuck to its period, it would be acceptable lesser Weinstein. (Bonny Prince Bertie of “The King’s Speech’’ puts in a cameo appearance, played by Laurence Fox and stuttering away so we know it’s him; the actor’s father, James, plays George V in a brief cameo.) One understands why Madonna would be drawn to this subject, a woman of heart, mind, and calculation who was vilified by many as a cold opportunist. As for Edward’s controversial Nazi connections, pay no mind - the movie doesn’t. This is history as seen from the Other Woman’s point of view. (Edward’s real wife being England, of course.)
The modern-day story is another thing entirely - a wan, muddled Park Avenue melodrama that features the gifted actress Abbie Cornish (“Bright Star’’) sleepwalking through the role of Wally, whose psychiatrist husband (Richard Coyle) is a brute who works suspiciously late every night. Named for Simpson, she spends her days haunting a Sotheby’s exhibition of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s estate, then goes home to jam in-vitro fertilization needles into her thigh in bludgeoning close-up. Every so often, Wallis herself appears to Wally, offering sisterly advice.
From the corner of the auction house showroom a security guard is watching with concern, and for good reason: Wally is clearly nuts. But it’s a movie and he’s in love with her and, anyway, he’s not really a security guard but a moonlighting Russian intellectual named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac) with a dead wife and a ballroom piano in his Brighton Beach loft. As they say on Ocean Blvd: Oy.
You can see what Madonna and her co-writer Alek Keshishian are up to here, dramatizing one woman’s emancipation as she becomes aware of the extent of another woman’s imprisonment. It would make an interesting music video. (Keshishian got his start in the form and directed the 1991 concert film “Madonna: Truth or Dare.’’) As long-form metaphor and/or insightful drama, though, it meanders prettily and emptily toward several false endings and the door prize of a new Madonna song over the end credits. The song is called “Masterpiece.’’ The movie is hardly that. But at its best it shows one strong, nervy woman considering another and weighing the costs of will.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.