New scene for queen of pop

She has received mixed reviews for her new film, W.E., but Madonna the film-maker may be here to stay. By Emma Jones

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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.However, there is one particular aspect of Mrs Simpson's story 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 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 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) and speculation that her face has acquired the cosmetically enhanced proportions of a puffed adder

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 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 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 play the main characters – Andrea Riseborough, star of Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Brighton Rock, is a prettier Mrs Simpson than history suggests. James D'Arcy, who appeared in the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, plays Edward. Australian actress Abbie Cornish, the lead in Bright Star, Jane Campion's film about Keats and Fanny Brawne, is the modern-day Wally Winthrop, a Park Avenue wife with an abusive husband and an obsession with her 1930s namesake.

Did Madonna mean to take 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 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. Putting a bracelet or something on to Andrea's wrist gave me an emotional connection before directing her. Some of the jewellery we used was Wallis Simpson's."

Having made the film, she still seems to be pondering the sacrifice Edward VIII made for love. Asked if 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.

'W.E.' is released on 20 January