The film tells the story of two women separated by more than six decades. In 1998, lonely New Yorker Wally Winthrop is obsessed with King Edward VIII's abdication of the British throne for the woman he loved, American divorcée Wallis Simpson. But Wally's research, including several visits to the Sotheby's auction of the Windsor Estate, reveals that the couple's life together was not as perfect as she thought. Weaving back and forth in time, W.E. intertwines Wally's journey of discovery in New York with the story of Wallis and Edward, from the early days of their romance to the unraveling of their lives in the decades that followed.
Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) is a lonely housewife, living in 1998 in New York City. She is neglected by her doctor husband, William Winthrop (Richard Coyle) and finds solace in the love story of King Edward VIII (James D'Arcy) and his lover, Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). Wally travels to the Sotheby's auction of the Windsor Estate, showcasing items used by Wallis and Edward in their lifetime, and reminisces about their relationship.
In 1930, Edward throws a party at his new home in Fort Belvedere, in Windsor Great Park where he meets Wallis through his mistress, Lady Furness (Katie McGrath). The two develop a mutual attraction for each other, in spite of Wallis being married to Ernest Simpson, and become lovers while Lady Furness is abroad. Wally's reminiscences are interrupted by Sotheby's guard Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), who takes a liking to her. Edward and Wallis continue their love affair while touring throughout Europe, where he gives her a number of jewels and assumes the initials W.E. By the end of 1934, Edward is irretrievably besotted with Wallis. He decides to introduce Wallis to his parents, King George V (James Fox) and Queen Mary (Judy Parfitt), but Wallis is portrayed in a bad light by Edward's sister-in-law Elizabeth (Natalie Dormer). A distraught Wallis wants to end the relationship but Edward pacifies her.
Wally urges her husband to have a child together but he doesn't want to and Wally suspects him of having an affair. When she accuses him, William hits her. Wally tries In vitro fertilisation in order to become pregnant. She gradually becomes attracted to Evgeni and eventually goes out on a date with him. She asks Evgeni more about Edward and Wallis, while pondering on her relationship with William.After she returns home, a suspecting William confronts and then beats Wally, leaving her badly injured on the floor.
The government of Great Britain and the Dominions refuse to recognise the relationship of Edward and Wallis, since she is a divorcée and so on the night of December 11, 1936, Edward makes a broadcast to the nation and the Empire, explaining his decision to abdicate the throne to his brother Bertie (Laurence Fox). He says, "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love." Wallis, who has fled to Villa Lou Viei, near Cannes, hears of this and has no choice other than to join Edward.
Evgeni, who has been calling Wally after their date, runs to her apartment to check on her and finds her on the floor. He takes her to his home in Brooklyn and nurses her back to health. Wally finds a new hope and new direction in life. She falls in love with Evgeni, divorces William and moves on with her life. An imaginary monologue with Wallis shows the two women talking about their lives, how they thought that they were similar, but in the end only Wally found happiness. Through a series of letters from Wallis kept in millionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed's collection, Wally comes to realise that the Duchess was stuck in a relationship with Edward for the rest of her life. Wally leaves behind her fascination with Wallis and Edward's relationship, and learns from her doctor that she is pregnant with Evgeni's baby.
Madonna had written the script for W.E. with director Alek Keshishian. Her then husband Guy Ritchie helped Madonna with the script and the screenplay, advising her to seek meetings with several actors such as Mark Strong and Toby Kebbell, who both had major roles in Ritchie's last film, RocknRolla. Madonna started writing W.E after she had finished filming her directorial venture, Filth and Wisdom (2008). W.E was actually an idea she had before Filth and Wisdom, but instead she filmed the latter, as she felt that she did not have enough experience to shoot a big-budgeted film like W.E. She described the whole film as a much bigger story:
There are more characters, and three of them basically changed the course of British history. King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to be with an American woman, Wallis Simpson, and that's part of my story, so I've had to do an enormous amount of research and interview people. So I have an enormous responsibility to that, and then I have a responsibility to the actual auction, which really happened. Then there's the new story, the point of view, which is this girl who has this obsession and is going to the auctions and stuff. So it's a much more layered, complicated piece than Filth and Wisdom.
After the writing began, Madonna realised that she needed help as the subject was vast. She enlisted the help of Keshishian, who was well acquainted with Madonna after directing her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna) and two of her music video clips. The writing process was dynamic, with Madonna and Keshishian e-mailing their developed scripts to each other, or through telephone conversations and also by writing on each other's laptop. W.E. was initially reported to be a musical about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Edward and Simpson. However, Madonna confirmed that although they are in the film, the main story was not about them. It was about a woman called Wally Winthrop, a young married New Yorker in 1998 who is obsessed with what she perceived as the ultimate romantic love story—Edward's abdication of the royal throne for his love of Simpson. The character of Simpson acted as a spiritual guide for Winthrop, in the film. The timeline presented in the film ranges from pre-World War II England (1936–37) to New York in 1998, and the storyline swaps between these two eras. Madonna decided to use the Sotheby's auction of Edward and Simpson's estate in 1998, to flash backward from.
Madonna's inspiration to direct the film came from the controversial lives of Edward and Simpson. She recalled from her experience that if she brought up King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson at a dinner party or a social gathering, "it's like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the room. Everyone erupts into an argument about who they were. I mean, they were very controversial – and continue to be. So, of course, I'm very attracted to that." She investigated the history behind the abdication and tried to understand what led Edward to leave his royal throne. The singer spent two years researching the life of Simpson and writing the script. She wallpapered an empty room in her house with pictures from auction catalogues and photographs of the Duke and Duchess throughout their lives. "I was sitting in a room that was completely and utterly inundated with their images so I could soak up their energy. I was trying to understand the nature of their love story and trying to figure out for myself if there is such a thing as perfect love," she said. However, not interested in making a biopic about Simpson, Madonna created the modern-day story about the character Wally Winthrop, so that she could have a point of view in which to tell the narrative. She explained later: "We can all read the same history book and have a different point of view. So it was important for me to not present the story and say, 'This is the one and only story,' but to say, 'This story moved me and inspired me.' That's how the two love stories were created." One of the first characters that Madonna developed for the film was a Russian immigrant living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, called Evgeni. The character was inspired by Eugene Hütz, who played the lead role in Filth and Wisdom. Another motivation behind the project was the celebrity aspect of Edward and Simpson, who became the subject of intense media scrutiny and public vilification and were ostracised by the Royal Family. Madonna, being interested in the cult of celebrity, found that many of the rumors surrounding Simpson's life are untrue and she could not find any empirical evidence supporting them. Hence she wanted to portray Simpson as a human being with flaws, imperfections and a vulnerable side. "The message of the film is to realise that in the end happiness lies in your own head and that we are in fact in charge of our destiny," she said.
After finishing the script and starting work on casting and production, Madonna realised that the budget of film was going to be high. Simpson's character had around 80 costume changes with dresses by designers like Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schiaparelli. Most of the actual dresses were kept in museum archives, hence unobtainable to Madonna. Instead, many of the couture houses offered to create the dresses for her. While casting for the film, she asked for a Michael O'Connor wedding dress, in display at the National Museum of Costume in Scotland, for a scene where Riseborough would wear it. National Museum of Costume general manager Margaret Roberts said they were happy to send the dress to Madonna. "Our Marriage in the Movies exhibition is packed with fabulous gowns that tell a story not only about the history of the period they represent, but also of Hollywood glamour and style," she said. [...] This is a dress that was made for the movies, so when we received the request from Madonna's production company, we were only too happy to oblige." Other fashion designers working for the film included John Galliano and Issa, who provided clothes, Pierre Cartier the jewels, and Stephen Jones the hats.
She also enlisted costume designer Arianne Phillips to create the dresses for the film. The costumes designed were a combination of real vintage pieces, others were remade based on patterns that were obtained out of the museum archives, and the rest had to be freshly made. In an interview with W magazine in November 2011, Philips explained that she "started doing research in 2009, a year before [W.E.] began filming... To me, Wallis Simpson was a style icon, but I didn’t know she was a couture client well before she met Edward. She was also a hungry whore for jewelry. Edward gave Wallis jewelry to make her feel royal. My first task was figuring out how to re-create those famous gifts." Madonna had sent a box of her research to Phillips, so that the designer could get a head start for the project. The singer understood the kind of attention to detail needed to create the costumes, drawing from her own garments which included couture. Phillips then researched the clothes on display at fashion departments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She then went to Los Angeles, where retailer Doris Raymond, from The Way We Wore had opened up her personal library of 1930s couture. There Phillips watched old newsreels from the University of California archives. Once filming started, the designer moved in Madonna's guesthouse in London, where they would watch the shot reels together and scrutinise the dresses. Phillips established contacts with designer labels like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels to replicate a cross bracelet and ten other pieces. For the gowns, undergarments, and dresses needed for the 60 costume changes in the film, Phillips scoured the archives of Vionnet and Schiaparelli; then with the cooperation of both houses she redesigned Simpson's clothing. The first dress in which Riseborough appeared as Simpson in the film was a re-creation of the dress owned by Simpson herself. Phillips decked the dresses with diamond bow brooch at the neck and paired with organza skirts, and was able to obtain duplicates for some of them from Cos Prop, a costume shop in London.
Some of the pieces that the duchess actually ordered I thought were hideous. Those wouldn’t work for the movie, so we modified and invented. Wallis wasn’t pretty; she was handsome, at best. In England, it was noted over and over how unattractive she was. But Wallis was a lot of fun—very entertaining. She had a freedom to her that was definitely reflected in her clothes; the duchess was all about presentation. And that became her refuge, and her prison.
According to Phillips, Edward's choice of clothes were specific and he rebelled against what his father dictated as the protocol for dresses. He used to wear navy blue tails, rather than black ones, as formalwear. The designer was able to see the original ones he owned at the National Museum of Costume. To re-create the look, Phillips contacted luxury goods company Alfred Dunhill who had an understanding of bespoke tailoring available in London's Savile Row. They provided Phillips with tailor, wools and fabrics from the mills that had created the original fabrics for Edward himself. Phillips tailored the baggy looks of the 1930s suits, to make them appealing for the contemporary audience. In the end, all the costumes were hand-made, with a total of 60 costumes being created for Simpson and 30 for Edward.
Madonna started work on the casting of W.E after coming back from Africa, where she had worked on her Raising Malawi initiative. She recalled how she found the task of casting actors for different parts as difficult, since many of them would refuse to sign for a particular role. Madonna contrasted the process of film casting with her task of making a new album, where she can easily choose the people she wants to work with. Abbie Cornish was signed to play the part of Wally Winthrop, while King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were played by James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough, respectively. Winthrop's Russian love interest Evgeni was played by Oscar Isaac and her husband William was played by Richard Coyle. Actress Vera Farmiga was initially asked for the role of Simpson. Farmiga commented:
Madonna approached me. We sat for a cup of tea and again for a cup of tea. Hopefully, it will all come together. I'm actually not familiar with her work, and I told her this flat-out. She sent a couple of films and I still haven't seen them... But no matter. I don't really go by that. I go by other things. I go by scripts. I go with what I think I can do with a character and if I feel a kinetic energy with someone and I feel we can uplift and challenge each other.
Farmiga later withdrew from the project as she had become pregnant with her second child, and Riseborough replaced her. After Farmiga had declined the project, Madonna looked into many actresses, before zeroing on Riseborough, whom she had seen as a young Margaret Thatcher in the BBC film The Long Walk to Finchley. Madonna explained her choice: "I was looking for a certain quality: something fragile, androgynous and yet feminine in a really old-fashioned way. When I saw Andrea, I knew immediately she was the one." Cornish commented on her role as Winthrop, "Madonna is a strong, independent woman who doesn't need a man to define her – and that's admirable. She's studied every aspect of what happened with Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. [...] It's a fascinating insight into class and romance. Madonna's created a contemporary woman—who I will play—called Wally, who is fascinated by what happened to Mrs. Simpson." Madonna's daughter Lourdes was offered a part, but Madonna decided against the idea. However, she later allowed Lourdes to appear for a minor role in the film. The part she played was later confirmed by Cornish in an interview in March 2011 as the younger self of her character Wally Winthrop.
Ewan McGregor was offered the part of King Edward VIII, but was later replaced by James D'Arcy. Additionally, producer David Parfitt and casting director Nina Gold also quit W.E., with sources claiming that the duo had "creative differences" with Madonna and found that she struggled to "collaborate and delegate". Actress Margo Stilley was to play the role of Lady Thelma Furness, but left the project, citing "artistic differences" with Madonna. Stilley said: "I had the role, but we had artistic differences. She (Madonna) is really something. I wish the cast luck because they are all really talented." In her place, Katie McGrath joined the cast. Judy Parfitt was signed to portray Queen Mary and Geoffrey Palmer as Stanley Baldwin. Real-life father and son James and Laurence Fox were signed to the parts of King George V and his son, Bertie—Edward's younger brother. BBC reported that members of the London Welsh Center expressed interest in appearing for a scene in the film, which involves Edward being shocked at the living conditions in Welsh mining villages. A spokesperson for the centre, which was contacted by the film's casting agency, said: "I've had about 15 phone calls this morning, and yesterday was bedlam because everybody wants to be in a film with Madonna." The centre said Welsh-speakers were needed as extras to create scenes based on Edward's visits to the south Wales valleys in the 1930s. Actress Natalie Dormer was cast to play the part of a young Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother). Dormer reflected on the role, saying: "This country tends to remember the Queen Mother as a rather wrinkly 97-year-old, but I am playing her when she was quite an enchanting, engaging twenty- and thirty-something. [...] She was quite a savage and savvy game player." Dormer's assertion of the role was confirmed by royal historian Hugo Vickers, who was sought by Madonna to advise her on the characteristics of the different members of the royal family. He confirmed that Madonna was portraying the Queen Mother as an unfavorable influence on the relationship between Edward VIII and Simpson.
Madonna wanted to shoot the film in certain locations where the British Royal family reside. A representative from her commented: "Madonna is keen to make the film as authentic as possible and would be very grateful if we are allowed to film at certain locations, She loves the UK and holds the Queen in the highest regard." Madonna decided to move back to the United Kingdom as the film would take six months to shoot. The budget of the film is £18 million ($36 million). Shooting began on July 5, 2010, and locations included London and Home Counties, with forays in New York and France. The Daily Mail reported that Madonna chose a pub in Kensington in west London, on July 21, 2010, to shoot some scenes for the film. She chose the top two floors of The Abingdon Pub, and worked for almost five hours there. This was followed by shooting scenes in the Club Quarters of Trafalgar Square on July 26, 2010. Other places where filming took place include the Stoke Park Country Club, Spa and Hotel in Buckinghamshire.
Then filming moved to France, where on July 29, 2010, Madonna shot scenes with D'Arcy and Riseborough in Palm Beach in Marseille, south of France and on the port of Villefranche-sur-Mer on July 30, 2010. Scenes were also shot at the Hotel Le Meurice, with Cornish in a new look consisting of dyed black hair, pale skin and a fitted black dress. She shot footage of a ten-second bath scene for the film. While shooting with Riseborough, Madonna and her team approached jewellery company Cartier to create copies of Simpson's extensive gem collection, which Riseborough had to wear during filming. However, one of the bracelets slipped off from Riseborough's arm while shooting, and was lost in the Mediterranean Sea. Madonna had to immediately order for replicating the jewellrey. Designer Arianne Phillips described the filming which involved the original jewelry of Simpson:
We were able to use archival pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels, which came with a revolving door of security guards. The jewelry schedule was very complicated, because pieces had to go from Switzerland to Paris, and the shooting schedule was changing constantly. It was really a house of cards. There were a couple of times we got caught, scenes got moved up, and lucky for me, Madonna was able to make available her personal jewelry. When you see Wallis spraying the flowers with perfume, her black and white pearl and diamond Bulgari earrings are Madonna's.
In September, Madonna shot some scenes involving Lourdes. Shooting took place around Mayfair, outside the hotel Claridge's, as well as in a set of Downing Street, created in Aldwych. Lourdes's scenes required her to be dressed as a schoolgirl. The same month, filming moved to New York, where Madonna shot scenes in Brooklyn. A dance sequence was shot where D'Arcy had to do a ballet, but he did not know how to do it and was requested by Madonna to learn the steps. D'Arcy described the sequence as "this extraordinary beautiful dance with lifts and twirls and I can't do that, but you do because she [Madonna] somehow makes the impossible possible and it gives you amazing self esteem when you do these things." Although the dance scene did not make the final cut of the film, Madonna also asked D'Arcy to learn to play bagpipes in six weeks and to ride horses.
Initial reports claimed that Madonna had composed the score of the film with producer William Orbit, and Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski assisting them. However the latter was credited as the sole music composer for the film. Madonna had heard Korzeniowski's work on the soundtrack for the 2009 drama film, A Single Man. The singer recalled that she was "struck by the score's 'bittersweet' qualities, this melancholic, romantic, sweeping emotional kind of heartbreaking beauty." She asked the film's director, fashion designer Tom Ford, about Korzeniowski and after she received positive feedback about him, she decided to sign Korzeniowski for composing W.E.'s score. Previously, Madonna had included parts of the score from A Single Man into the rough cut for W.E., as well as in some of the screenplay. The score predominantly features usage of strings, accompanied by electric guitar, harp, viola and piano. The combination of traditional and modern instrumentation was used to bridge the two different time-periods portrayed in the film.
Korzeniowski and conductor Terry Davies recorded a 60-piece orchestra at London's Abbey Road Studios in April 2011, concentrating on purely the emotional states of the characters, and did not concern himself too much with differentiating the periods of the film. In an interview with Variety, the composer said that for the scenes featuring Simpson, he tried to make the score be more modern than the scenes featuring Winthrop. Madonna wanted Korzeniowski to keep the score simple and direct. She felt that Korzeniowski being a classically trained musician, he would be cerebral in his approach to music and would over complicate the score. "It is not the type of score where you go through crazy harmonic changes and modulations," said the composer. "This was one of the very precise notes I got from Madonna, that I was not supposed to over-think this music." The main inspiration behind the score was the irrational love as portrayed in the film, which Korzeniowski said could be "just an illusion". He wanted the music to reflect those powerful and conflicting emotions through the melodies, repeating between despair and sorrow, and hope and joy.
Madonna contributed a new song titled "Masterpiece" for the soundtrack, composed by herself, Julie Frost and Jimmy Harry, while produced by Orbit. In the song, she sings about the pain of being in love with someone who is a great work of art, with the lyrics going like "If you were the Mona Lisa, You'd be hanging in the Louvre, Everyone would come to see you, You'd be impossible to move." A writer from Billboard described "Masterpiece" as a slowed-down, moody ballad that showcases strong execution of vocals from Madonna. He described the production as "simple, direct and reminiscent of her sound in the 1990s". The lyrics were described as emotional, and was comparable to the film's love story, with the chorus going on like: "And I'm right by your side, Like a thief in the night, I stand in front of a masterpiece. And I can't tell you why it hurts so much to be in love with a masterpiece." The song plays over the end credits of W.E. and would be included in Madonna's upcoming album, MDNA. The soundtrack was released digitally through Interscope Records, on January 31, 2012.
All music composed by Abel Korzeniowski except "Masterpiece".
In February 2011, Madonna held a private screening of the film's trailer at the Berlin Film Festival. The attendance included a Q&A session from Madonna and was intended to sell the film to distributors. The rights were acquired by Optimum Releasing for the UK market, The Weinstein Company for the US release and Village Roadshow for Australia and New Zealand. Weinstein promoted the film as Madonna's first full-length directorial venture, since her previous directed film, Filth and Wisdom, was considered a short film by them for its runtime of 81 minutes. Madonna had hoped to premiere the film at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, but could not do so since she was still making finishing touches to the soundtrack and there were three weeks more of post-production to complete before the film was ready to be screened to an international audience. A representative for the film festival said that, "[w]hile the movie's distributors will attend the festival, they will preview select cuts to buyers at private screenings instead of showing the entire feature." The Daily Mail columnist Baz Bamingboye reported that W.E. would be premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, where it would be screened out of the competition. W.E. was shown at the festival on September 1, 2011, with Madonna attending the premiere, along with the principal cast. Other film festivals where W.E. was shown included the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival in the same month. Along with the film festivals, still images from W.E. were released in the September 2011 issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
The official poster featured D'Arcy carrying Riseborough on his back in a romantic pose. David Wharton from Cinema Blend was not impressed with the poster, saying that although he felt it was "artfully" done, "It's the sort of thing the movie industry does all the time on their posters, just like the 'floating heads' trope or the 'looking through somebody's legs' pose. [B]ut I'm a sucker for a well-done movie poster, and this just seems lazy." A second poster was also released, which again featured Riseborough and D'Arcy as Wallis and Edward, about to kiss on a beach. Written on the top left of the poster is the following line: "One of the greatest love stories of all time, the king who gave up his throne for the woman he loved." Throughout January 2012, Madonna appeared on two different television shows and talked about the film. She first appeared on the ABC show called Nightline, where she chatted with the host Cynthia McFadden about W.E. Then she appeared on The Graham Norton Show in the United Kingdom, where she was accompanied by D'Arcy and Riseborough. The UK and US premiere for the film took place on January 11 and 23, 2012, respectively.
Madonna had secured backing from Indian billionaire Anil Ambani's IM Global film financiers. A correspondent for Madonna said that they were looking towards a London premiere late 2011 or early 2012—the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year—which Madonna hoped would allow the film to capitalise on its royal theme. A spokesman for Optimum Releasing, the film's UK distributor, said: "The film was not due to be shown in Cannes. It is in post-production and will now be released early next year." Weinstein Company announced in June 2011, that they planned to release W.E. on December 9, 2011, in the United States. It will open in New York and Los Angeles on the said date, expanding to additional markets throughout the month, before the wide release intended for mid-January. Harvey Weinstein, head of The Weinstein Company, said of the release date: "Madonna beautifully interweaves past and present in W.E., It's a very smart film, and a stunning directorial debut. I'm incredibly excited about this movie and I wanted to give it a prominent release date." After the showcase of the film in Venice and Toronto film festivals, Weinstein decided to cut the time of the film by about ten minutes. Talk of making changes began in advance of the Toronto showcase, and after negotiating with Madonna, they finally decided to remove around ten minutes from the film. Plans were changed later and Weinstein confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that the film would have only a limited, one-week run beginning on December 9, 2011, before opening wide on February 3, 2012.
After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, it received mixed reviews. Some news sources reported that "critics were completely divided on their opinions". When nine reviews of the critics who had seen the film in Venice were tabulated, The Huffington Post gave the film the overall critical score of D. Steve Pond of Reuters theorised that W.E. probably would not help in "turning Madonna's faltering movie career". Kyle Buchanan of New York wondered whether W.E. would receive any significant film related awards, as predicted by industry prognosticators. He concluded that the film "still may [receive awards], but to judge from some of the vicious pans coming out of Venice today, it might have longer legs as a Razzie front-runner." Daily Mail's Baz Bamigboye gave the film a mostly positive review, saying that "A lot of people will loathe it, simply because it’s been made by Madonna. But if people were to watch it with no knowledge of who directed, they would be pleasantly surprised. They might even find much of it enjoyable." David Gritten of The Daily Telegraph gave the film three stars and a mixed review stating that, "Madonna's W.E. is a bold and confident story about an American woman's obsession with the Windsors." Gritten complimented Riseborough and Cornish's acting but felt that the film looked like a commercial of expensive items, thus making it appeal to younger women for its fashion portrayal.
Negative reviews came from Xan Brooks of The Guardian, who gave the film one star, describing it as "a primped and simpering folly, the turkey that dreamed it was a peacock. Brooks predicted that the film "may even surpass 2008's Filth and Wisdom, Madonna's calamitous first outing as a film-maker. Her direction is so all over the shop that it barely qualifies as direction at all." Pointing out a scene, he added that "Madonna has Wallis bound on stage to dance with a Masai tribesman while Pretty Vacant blares on the soundtrack. But why? What point is she making? That social-climbing Wallis-Simpson was the world's first punk-rocker?" Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film resembled a documentary of a woman out on a shopping expedition. McCarthy felt that the storyline was especially dreary during the portrayal of the love affair between Wally and Evgeni. "For the audience, Wally, despite Cornish's gentle and warm presence, offers very little in terms of personal interest or as a key into the world of one of the last century's most discussed couples." However, McCarthy praised cinematographer Hagen Bogdaski's work. Oliver Lyttelton of indieWire also slammed the film stating that "the use of music is horrible" and "We’ve never looked forward to Madonna going back on tour more, if only because it means that we’ll know, for certain, that she won’t be using that time to direct another movie." Emma Pritchard from Grazia added that "Wallis Simpson was the kind of woman who was accused of being more style than substance – and that, alas, is what Madonna has recreated on screen with W.E." Mark Adams of Screen Daily singled out Riseborough's performance as a "highlight", but overall felt that the film was disappointing. Leslie Felperin from Variety was disappointed in the film, saying that it is "burdened with risible dialogue and weak performances". Felperin felt that the reason for the film's downfall was its script, which attended to the costumes and fashion more than the actual story, which she felt had much potential, but was unused.
After its release, W.E. again faced negative reviews. Currently on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a score of just 12%, being certified "rotten" by critics out of 98 reviews. It also has a Metacritic score of 36/100, indicating generally unfavorable reviews.
Colin Kennedy from Metro called the film "disastrous", noting the film's "judicious casting and handsome design [were] marred by a callow director’s shaky shot selection." Adam Woodward of Little White Lies panned the film as "an arrogant vanity project rendered laughable by its kitschy sycophancy." Simon Reynolds of Digital Spy described the film as "impeccably turned out with exquisite costume design", but felt it is "barely enough to disguise its wildly inconsistent tone, chop-change visual style and snoozy performances." Dan Carrier of Camden New Journal gave the film one out of five stars, saying that W.E. is "a horrible film to watch" and that Madonna "should never be allowed to go anywhere near a director’s camera again."
Positive review came from Diego Costa of Slant Magazine, who gave the film three out of four stars. He described the film as "a shameless visual pleasure", adding that it is a "perfectly fine piece of oneiric cinema. It puts forth, in fact, a kind of filmic écriture feminine so unabashedly consumed by "the look" and its world of artifices that we'd have to recognise, if we were to be critically fair and put our own hetero-sexist anxieties aside, that W.E. makes a mockery out of 'man's cinema'." Costa complimented Madonna's direction, calling her a "masterful aesthetician". Korzeniowski soundtrack was also commended, with Costa believing that it blended the scenes well. America argued that the film demonstrated Madonna's ambition for artistic gravitas and called it a more mature Blond Ambition Tour. One reviewer stated that "there is a quintessentially Christian, if not Catholic subtext to the film. . . . [referring to the scenes of domestic violence] In both instances, the blood of Christ is reflected in the hands and groins of Mary-like figures." Damon Wise from Empire gave the film three out of five stars and commented on the harsh criticism of Madonna stating "A lot has been said about Madonna and her new film — about how bad and inept it is, as if it's somehow worse than 99 percent of the other movies released on a weekly basis. That's right: up there with Showgirls. Let's give the director a break here." He complimented Riseborough's acting and that "In the short term, this will see W.E. dismissed as a vanity project but, in the long term, history may well find it to be a fascinating comment on 20th-century celebrity from the ultimate insider."
W.E. won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song for "Masterpiece", and was nominated for Best Original Score for Abel Korzeniowski, at the 69th Golden Globe Awards. "Masterpiece" was also sent for being shortlisted at the 84th Academy Awards, in the category of Best Original Song. However, the song was not considered since as per the rules by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a song is eligible only if it appears in a film no later than the start of the final credits and "Masterpiece" is played after more than one minute into the credits. At the 14th annual Costume Designers Guild Awards, W.E. won an award in the category Excellence in Period Film for Arianne Phillips. She also received another nomination at the 84th Academy Awards, in the category of Best Costume Design.
Globally the film was a commercial failure. In the United Kingdom, W.E. opened in a total of 172 cinemas, grossing a total of £183,000 with advance screenings added in. Despite only being available to view at a small number of cinemas, it ranked number 14 in the week's top-grossing films and went to 20 on its first week of DVD sales in the UK.
Production credits as per W.E. press release from the official film website, Madonna.com and The Weinstein Company.