American, twice divorced, scorned by the British establishment she married in to and living by the adage, "You can never be too rich or too thin." It's no wonder Madonna identifies with Wallis Simpson. It's one particular aspect of Mrs Simpson's story, however, that has mesmerised Madonna – to the extent that she has poured three years of her life into researching, writing, producing and directing W.E., her account of the love story between Simpson and King Edward VIII.
"I was always intrigued by the idea that this twice-divorced woman from Baltimore, who was not even considered beautiful, captured the heart of the most powerful man in the world at the time – to the extent that he gave up his throne," she explains.
"A king gives up his throne for the woman he loves. Isn't this shocking? Doesn't that make you go, 'Why?!' What did she have that would make him make such a sacrifice for her?"
W.E. had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, where the critics had their knives ready sharpened. Despite a Golden Globe win for Evita, Madonna has never been taken seriously by the film world. Critics may forget that Guy Ritchie directed Swept Away, but they won't ever let Madonna forget that she was in it.
As a rule, she is tremulous about offering up her films. When I first met her for her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, in Berlin in 2008, she was articulate and impressive in explaining her work, but she was even more nervous than I was. For W.E., she seems more composed, but still vulnerable. The press conference she gave at Venice was overshadowed by her off-mic confession that she loathes hydrangeas (having been given a bunch as a gift) and speculation that her face has acquired the cosmetically enhanced proportions of a puffed adder. She admits to marrying creative types such as Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie. This is also treated as big news.
The film is a sideshow to the main event – Madonna's superstar status. Is that another point of empathy with Wallis Simpson? Madonna depicts her in the film as running away from the flashbulbs, a royal forerunner of Diana. "There has been a lot written about Wallis Simpson, but I wanted to try and discover the real woman beneath all the scandal," she says. "Once you're a public figure, people cease to see you as a human being. You spend most of your life reading about yourself and saying, 'That's not me.'"
Madonna was dreaming of W.E. before she made Filth and Wisdom, but she shelved it until she had more experience of film-making.
"It was a very complex idea I had. I didn't want to make a straightforward biopic, so I invented a modern-day story too, of a New Yorker called Wally Winthrop, which gave me a frame with which to weave back and forth between the two stories."
Rising British stars were chosen to play the main characters – Andrea Riseborough, the star of Rowan Joffe's recent adaptation of Brighton Rock, is a prettier Mrs Simpson than history suggests. James D'Arcy, who appeared in several episodes of the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, plays King Edward. The Australian actress Abbie Cornish, the lead in Jane Campion's 2009 film about Keats and Fanny Brawne, Bright Star, is the modern-day Wally Winthrop, a Park Avenue wife with an abusive husband and an obsession with her 1930s namesake.
Did Madonna intend to end up in charge of every aspect of the production? "I researched and co-wrote the screenplay [with Alek Keshishian, her co-writer on Filth and Wisdom] and I cast the film, and then I produced it because I couldn't find a suitable producer in time before shooting, and then I had to direct it within 52 days. It was not fun at all. It was all-encompassing and gut-wrenchingly hard, and very educational.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say I am a control freak, but I am a detail freak. I chose the costumes, the locations, the lamps, the tables, the carpets, the drapes – everything. I also liked to put the finishing touches on the actors before they did their scenes – you know, with their hair and clothes. Putting on a bracelet or something on to Andrea's wrist gave me an emotional connection before directing her. Some of the jewellery we used was actually Wallis Simpson's."
It was, however, a relaxed set – she even led them in guitar singalongs, Cliff Richard-style, when rain stopped play – and her cast have nothing but praise for her. Riseborough describes her as "passionate and prepared", while D'Arcy singles out her "clear vision".
The reviews, though, have been mixed so far, ranging from "bold and confident" to "a simpering folly" and "a royal disaster". The consensus after the first screening was that it was too long, too muddled, and too keen to gloss over the couple's alleged Nazi sympathies. It does, however, look exquisite. The shine on the martini shaker, the weave count of the linen tablecloth – Madonna is brilliant with small details. It's the big picture she struggles with.
When asked about the critics, she looks as though she's preparing to take a bullet to the heart, and answers carefully. "I care when it's fair criticism, when it's about the film rather than reviewing me personally. I welcome it when it's about my artistic form but not when it's about my personal life."
W.E. is all about Madonna personally, though. The film's message seems to recall her 1989 hit "Express Yourself". "It's about what Wallis says in the movie," explains Madonna. "'Get a life.' Happiness lies in our own hands and we are in charge of our own destiny."
It's an ethic that has seen Madonna rule the pop world for a quarter of a century. And she might continue to do so, with the release of her latest, as yet untitled album this spring. A single, "Gimme All Your Luvin", is expected shortly, along with (presumably) a new image. But although she's turned her attention back to music, she won't be deflected from film-making. "I lovedirecting, I love all aspects of it, and I hope to make another film. Sure – I feel the pressure now, just as when I began in my music career. I had to earn my way, and to be taken seriously. I hope this is only the beginning for me."
Having made the film, she still seems to be pondering the sacrifice Edward VIII made for love. Asked whether she'd be willing to climb down from her throne for a man or a woman, she smiles: "I like to think I can have both – or all three." She's not joking. And that's where Madonna and the story of W.E. part company. She's not sacrificing her throne for anyone.
'W.E.' is released on 20 January
- More about:
- P Funk