It seems strange to say, but Madonna may be struggling to find her voice. The singer's latest attempt to reinvent herself as a movie director has met with raised eyebrows and a certain amount of scepticism ahead of the world premier of her new film, W.E., at the Venice Film Festival.
We have been on this territory before. Her first foray into film-making was Filth and Wisdom, starring Gogol Bordello's lead singer, Eugene Hütz. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008 and received mixed reviews, commonly along the lines of "not as bad as we were expecting from the star of Swept Away".
Madonna always proffered that her film about three flatmates leading diverse lives in London was her film school, a low-budget testing pad to learn all the whatnots of shooting a movie. Things presumably that her ex-husband the Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels director Guy Ritchie could not pass on to her.
So now we come to W.E., the feature film that Madonna has stated was written before her debut and is the movie she has always wanted to make. Bizarrely, the US distributor of the film, The Weinstein Company, is trying to push the movie as the pop star's directorial debut rather than as her second movie. The basis of this is absurd: they claim that at 81 minutes, Filth and Wisdom is a short film. There is not one body in the world that classes any film more than 80 minutes long as short. I'd like to hear the conversation where Harvey Weinstein tells Roman Polanski that his competition film Carnage is, at 79 minutes, a short film.
Nonetheless, the message is clear: the singer is now ready to put her head on the chopping block and be assessed as a director. W.E. keeps up Madonna's love affair with Britain. It tells the story of a New Yorker, Wally Winthrop, who is infatuated with what she believes is the ultimate love story: King Edward VIII marrying the American divorcee Wallis Simpson and giving up the throne. The film jumps back and forth between 1936 and 1998 New York, where Wally has a job working in Sotheby's Estate House, where there is an auction of royal memorabilia. Unhappy in her marriage to a psychiatrist, Wally falls in love with a mysterious Russian security guard.
The project has been shrouded in much secrecy but what has slipped out about the production doesn't necessarily bode well. The first hitch came even before film had rolled. The 53-year-old director seemed to have pulled off a coup by castingVera Farmiga, who was Oscar-nominated for Up in the Air, in the role of the American divorcee and Ewan McGregor as Edward.
But Farmiga fell pregnant and had to withdraw, and McGregor was never confirmed. The part instead went to James D'Arcy. These could just be seen as the usual production troubles, but Madonna admitted in Interview magazine to some frustration about the working methods of actors, constantly hearing words to the effect of, "That actor is not available except for these three weeks."
Once the film was announced, dissenting voices about the comportment of the director began to emerge. The Nine Songs star Margo Stilley was cast as Lady Thelma Furness in the period drama, but left the project. She stated, "I had the role, but we had artistic differences. She [Madonna] is really something."
It was not just actors that seemed to create casting issues. Nina Gold, one of Britain's top casting agents – she cast Vera Drake and the TV series Rome – left the project along with the Shakespeare in Love producer David Parfitt. Sources claimed that the duo had "creative differences" with Madonna and that she struggled to "collaborate and delegate".
The singer admits to liking arguments as part of the creative process. Madonna co-wrote the W.E. script with Alek Keshishian, who directed the 1991 documentary In Bed with Madonna, and she told Gus van Sant this about their collaboration: "We have a weird kind of brother-sister relationship. One minute we're hugging each other and crying on each other's shoulders, and the next minute were slamming the door in each other's face and not speaking to each other for a month."
Madonna admits that it's hard for her to hear "no": "It's torture for me, because I want to personally go to all the people who are saying no to me and say, 'Can't we just work something out?'... Film-making is such a collaboration. At a certain point, I suppose you do have to let go and trust people that you are working with."
Shooting took place last summer in London, the home counties, Paris and New York. It was her first major return to the capital after her divorce from Guy Ritchie. Whenever she would shoot at an East End location, it was almost unavoidable that the singer would be compared to her ex, given the speculation that his ridiculing of her move into film-making contributed to the end of the marriage.
The rising British star Andrea Riseborough was cast to play Wallis Simpson. The Newcastle-born 29-year-old, who came to prominence playing Margaret Thatcher in Margaret Thatcher: the Long Walk to Finchley, was last year feted for her turns in Never Let Me Go and Brighton Rock.
She says of the role, "I had to do a training regime to get into the Wallis state. She didn't eat. She had a stomach ulcer and so she couldn't eat, that has been really interesting because her physicality is extraordinary. She is riddled with tension. It was tough physically, a lot of massage to undo the knots that she created, the way she stands. But you have to be tense to pull off the gowns. They are works of architecture in themselves."
Riseborough only had good words to say about her director: "She is wonderful. She is very focused, driven, hard-working and supportive."
Playing Wally in 1998 is the 29-year-old Australian actress Abbie Cornish. The star of Limitless and Sucker Punch spoke of having to be constantly on her toes on set, not because Madonna was a tyrant but because of the need to be up on political events. "You need to be totally switched on to the news and current affairs to talk to her – she asks you questions all the time and expects you to be up on everything that's going on, from Libya to the latest advances in technology."
The road to the first public screening of W.E. has also been rocky. Expectations were that it would premier in Berlin, like Filth and Wisdom, but only a trailer was shown and Madonna turned up to push the film to ensure sales. The singer promised that she would do interviews supporting the film, before several buyers signed up. Cannes was next on the agenda, but when the film did not appear the singer claimed she was working on the sound mix for the film and it was not ready. There were unsubstantiated rumours of poor test screenings. As with many films rumoured to be in Cannes but not making the cut, the film has turned up at Venice Film Festival.
W.E. is playing out of competition, usually a bad sign for a film with such a high profile. However, the line-up for this year's festival is the strongest it has been for years, with new films from George Clooney, David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski all making their debuts. So it's perhaps no surprise that Madonna has been given a special screening. Whether this is a gimmick to ensure more star appeal on the Lido in a year that Venice wants to prove it is not a festival in decline, will only be revealed when W.E. is finally unveiled. Madonna failed to make the jump from singer to movie star, and it's going to be one of the stories of the festival to see if she can successfully make the jump behind the camera.
Venice Film Festival runs from 31 August to 10 September (www.labiennale.org)
Sex, Spies and Psychoanalysis: Five To Watch at Venice
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tomas Alfredson, the director of 'Let the Right One In', adapts John le Carré's spy novel with an all-star British cast. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, with Colin Firth (above), Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt supporting.
Steve McQueen's follow up to 'Hunger' is set in New York and stars Michael Fassbender as a man unable to manage his wild sex life. His self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment.
Andrea Arnold takes on Emily Brontë in what the 'Red Road' director has described as a pared-down and modern approach to the novel. The emphasis is likely to be on the gothic.
Roman Polanski adapts Yasmina Reza's four-hander play 'God of Carnage'. It stars Jodie Foster, John C Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet (right), and tells the story of parents who decide to meet together after their sons have a brawl in school.
A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg explores the birth of psychoanalysis in his adaptation (above) of Christopher Hampton's 2002 stage play 'The Talking Cure', itself based on John Kerr's book 'A Most Dangerous Method'. Viggo Mortensen stars as Freud and Michael Fassbender as Jung, while Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein.