American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
There's dialogue in "W.E." that probably holds some truth about the strange attraction the then-King Edward VIII felt for Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American he valued more than the British throne. Quoting from memory: "She absolutely possesses him. Not dominates. Possesses." There were tales that theirs was a sadomasochistic union, but as it's seen in "W.E.," Madonna's new film, it seems based more on their mutual fascination with the awfulness of the thing they have done.
The movie indicates it was Edward who insisted they marry. Apparently so. He wanted to make a grotesque sacrifice in giving himself to this woman who after all was not that beautiful, not that young and not that irresistible. As the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, their marriage lasted from 1937 to 1972, and they were known above all for maintaining a facade of high style, harmony and no trace of regret. She was considered the epitome of chic and set a global standard with her clothes, her jewelry, her taste. What a shabby trade-off for the throne.
Madonna co-wrote the film and has apparently been fascinated by the Duchess for many years. That may explain why this is the story of two women, decades apart: Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish). Riseborough looks convincing with her white skin, red lips, severe hairstyle and haute couture. I at least never found the Duchess feminine, let alone sexy. Wally Winthrop is a fictional character, a rich Manhattan married woman whose thuggish husband slaps her around. She haunts the display at Sotheby's auction house of the Windsors' possessions; tablecloths, candlesticks, cigarette cases, crystal, silver. These totems are fetishes for her.
She's noticed by a smooth Sotheby's security guard named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), and they feel an immediate sexual tension. I am not sure why the character or the tension exists. There are no expository scenes explaining how the stories of the two women are intended to connect; but obviously they must, because Madonna bridges time and space to have them actually meet and discuss things they have found to be true.