J. Edgar and W.E: No life in this body of evidence (both 15)

J.Edgar - starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts W.E. - starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy, Oscar Isaac

Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is a portrait of the ultimate bureaucrat. John Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years, made it his business to know everybody else's business, by hook or (more often) by crook.

His story hinges on a major irony: the man who raided others' privacy, to the point of eavesdropping on the Kennedys and sending anonymous crank mail to Martin Luther King, was terrified of letting slip his own secret life. As scripted by Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar-winner for Milk, Hoover was a repressed homosexual who took to heart his adored mother's warning – "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son" – yet managed to brazen out a lifelong companionship with his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson. Truman Capote called the pair "Johnny and Clyde".

It sounds like a juicily conflicted life, and yet it makes for a deadly drama. Eastwood hopscotches back and forth through time, between Hoover's rise to prominence in the 1930s and his twilight reign in the 1960s, but for all its fairness – Hoover pioneered fingerprinting as a forensic technique – the directorial viewpoint remains oddly neutral. Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role struggles with the noncommittal attitude, unsure whether to play self-tormented or to go for the full-blown monster of legend. Our first sight of Hoover as an old man, caked in prosthetics with the bulge-eyed look of a constipated frog, takes some getting used to, as does the quavery bad-actor voice that narrates throughout.

The virulent anti-communism and control-freak tendencies are always to the fore; what's missing is that spark of manipulative cunning that made his name so feared in mid-century America. Nothing Hoover does here feels truly surprising, or almost nothing. I knew that he was inclined to dress in women's clothes – I didn't realise they were his mother's. (Like Norman Bates in Psycho; some reckon the resemblance didn't end there.)

It is incendiary material of a sort, though to non-American audiences its appeal will be limited: who needs a 137-minute study of a desk job? Eastwood and his cinematographer, Tom Stern, shoot it in austere brown tones, and bury it in shadow to emphasise the dark arts Hoover made his obsession. The film dabbles in self-justification, with the boss reciting his memoirs to various Boswellian amanuenses and gilding his own crimebuster past in the process. And still the material never comes to life, marooned somewhere between myth and gossip (did he really fire an employee because he disliked his moustache?).

Two performances catch the eye amid the lugubrious duns and blues. Naomi Watts is excellent in the early scenes as Helen Gandy, the watchful woman who turned down Hoover's marriage proposal, and instead became his loyal secretary and chief keeper of secrets. Armie Hammer is touching as the not-so-straight-arrow Clyde Tolson, urbane, sensitive and quietly adoring of the man whose love would dare not speak its name. Let down by the make-up department, which turns his liver-spotted dotage into a Borg from Star Trek, Hammer still conveys a strong pathos in the final stretch.

Where Eastwood's Mandela biopic, Invictus, was too much in awe of its subject, J. Edgar feels too guarded and selective. No attempt is made to explain why Hoover failed to tackle organised crime. The boss, running to fat, is twice assured that he's only carrying "solid weight", which fairly describes the film. It just squats there, heavy and implacable, filling the screen without convincing us it has any vital message to impart.

Another infamous American is at the centre of W.E., Madonna's vanity-project valentine to Wallis Simpson, the divorcee who sparked a constitutional crisis in 1936 after she ensnared the heart of Edward VIII. The script's line is that the lady was more sinned against than sinning, that contrary to the official version she was helpless to resist the besotted royal. Ignore the couple's blithe espousal of the Nazis – the film certainly does – and you have a scandalous romance for the ages, distinguished in part by Andrea Riseborough's admirable turn as the social-climbing Wallis, poised in the regal presence when most were scared stiff. James D'Arcy isn't so assured as the king, wearing the dandy-ish duds pretty well but not quite the air of the spoilt playboy.

What drives the movie over the cliff is Madonna's nutty decision to interleave the Wallis-Edward crisis with the fictional story of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a socialite unhappily married in 1998 Manhattan and injecting herself with fertility drugs. Wally keeps visiting the Sotheby auction of Wallis's personal treasures, poring over clothes, trinkets and furnishings like some fetishist stalker. Later, she communes with the ghost of Wallis as she wonders what it might be like for a man to sacrifice himself for love. As if that weren't enough, a security guard named Evgeny (Oscar Isaac) allows Wally to roam free through the sale exhibits after-hours and revel in the fabulousness of her heroine's taste. It transpires that Evgeny is a widower, pianist and good guy who lives in an enormous cool loft: possibly Madonna doesn't know that most people can't afford vast apartments in Manhattan, least of all low-paid menials.

The two stories don't resonate or comment on each other, they're just mashed together, boringly, fatuously. There may be an unacknowledged layer of meaning in the title, W.E. referring to Wallis and Edward's twinned destinies but also hinting at Madonna's identification (WE two) with a sexy and supposedly misunderstood American interloper. She's welcome to think that. It only becomes a problem when she tries to impose her own warped reading of history, such as the scene where Wallis dances with a Masai tribesman to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant". Did she think this was a great joke? A daring anachronism? I fear she has only made herself look a bit of a wally.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible