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Madonna Resurrects Wallis, Polanski’s Comeback: Venice Reviews

Madonna, right, directs Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy in the role of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII in her movie ''W.E.'' Source: Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg

Madonna has more in common with Wallis Simpson than you might think: She too was an American divorcee who married an Englishman and had trouble adjusting.

Not surprisingly then, Madonna has made a movie about the woman for whom Edward VIII surrendered the throne. “W.E.” premiered yesterday at the Venice Film Festival, out of the official competition.

Looking Wallis-like in red lipstick and a white-collared black dress, the 53-year-old singer grudgingly took questions, scolding reporters who had more than one. Asked if she’d give up her pop-queen throne for a man or woman, she replied, “I think I can have both. Or all three.”

Madonna’s second stab at filmmaking (after the 2008 “Filth and Wisdom”) is stylish but sophomoric. From a purely emotional standpoint, it’s barely more engaging than a fashion shoot, or a music video. Feelings -- love, fear, betrayal, solitude -- are expressed in their most elementary form. Actors get little direction.

Madonna has crafted a modern plot to run alongside the Wallis-and-Edward (“W.E.”) legend. She shows a Manhattan wife named Wally (Abbie Cornish) getting roughed up by her British therapist husband, and developing an obsession with Mrs. Simpson. Wally makes daily visits to view the Simpson baubles on display at Sotheby’s, where she befriends a Russian security guard called Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).

Revealing Seduction

A more seasoned writer would have put together a better companion plot; Madonna’s is gloomy and forced. Parallels between Wallis and Wally -- besides a shared quest for true love -- are hard to see. At one point, the contemporary courtship even descends into farce: Evgeni dons a Scottish military uniform to seduce Wally after hours, and as he lifts his kilt to sit at the piano, reveals a bare bottom.

The film’s stronger half, by far, is the royal romance, helped by Andrea Riseborough’s solid performance as Wallis. The impossibly chic couple swan from one Riviera resort to another, playing out their love affair, though, there again, the camera cuts away too quickly.

Madonna has proven her acting talents repeatedly -- in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” for instance, or “Dick Tracy.” Her effort to show Wallis Simpson’s human side is unconvincing. It makes you wish the chronic performer had stood in front of the camera, not behind it. Rating: **.

Polanski’s ‘Carnage’

Roman Polanski is making headlines again -- and for the right reasons this time.

The Polish-born director was freed from house arrest last year after Switzerland refused to extradite him to California in a case involving unlawful sexual conduct. Absent from the Venice Film Festival, he sent a movie that may have a shot at the final prize: “Carnage,” based on a play by Yasmina Reza.

Two New York couples meet after their pre-adolescent sons get in a punch-up, one boy leaving the other with a couple of broken incisors. The parental encounter, civilized at first, quickly turns into full-scale warfare.

The victim’s parents, Penelope and Michael Longstreet, host the meeting in their coffee-toned living room, lined with African textiles and art books. Penelope (Jodie Foster) is a liberal sophisticate who campaigns for Darfur, and Michael (John C. Reilly), a houseware supplier.

The guilty boy’s parents are much more corporate: Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz, the Nazi colonel in “Inglourious Basterds”) is an attorney working for a pharmaceutical firm, and Nancy (Kate Winslet), a pencil-skirted investment broker.

One Room

Unbelievably, the film takes place exclusively in the Longstreet living room, and often to hilarious effect. Battle lines keep getting redrawn, as the men take sides against the women, and vicious marital disputes erupt.

The characters all end up making fools of themselves. Alan is wedded to his cellphone (“You can’t recall a drug because three guys can’t walk a straight line!” he howls down it). Penelope is an incorrigible Europhile (“My Kokoschka!” she squeals, as Nancy pukes all over an out-of-print art catalog).

Polanski miraculously makes his single-location production feel like a full-fledged movie -- not a play, and not a TV movie. As Reilly noted in Venice, “Roman went to great pains to have variety.”

In the process, “Carnage” is way better than the underlying work, which in its original Paris staging managed to be quite dull. By transposing it to Manhattan, Polanski makes the political correctness all the more comical. His skill -- and that of his actors, Foster and Reilly in particular -- could well bring a Venice nod.

Rating: ***1/2.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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