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Doing the Duchess Justice in Madonna's W.E.

Feb 09, 2012 | Updated Apr 09, 2012

I'm so happy to see the "new" Wallis Simpson.

Like Anne Boleyn, another historical punching bag, Wallis Simpson has been demonized by generations of bitter historians and frumpy old bags.

Sure, it's easy to hate someone who famously said "a woman can never be too rich or too thin," but hats off to Madonna's new film W.E., making its American debut this week, which paints the elusive Duchess of Windsor with an illuminating brush.

The movie's protagonist, Wally Winthrop, a bored and privileged Upper East Side housewife, played by Abbie Cornish, becomes enamored of the late Wallis Simpson after seeing her elaborate clothes, jewels, and furniture auctioned off at Sotheby's.

As Wally is driven to distraction by her absentee husband and inability to conceive, her obsession with all things Wallis intensifies. She listens to radio interviews. She examines the Sotheby's pieces for clues to her character. She travels to Paris to read her private correspondence. Wally has imaginary conversations with Wallis about her problems and self-doubt.

The more Wally discovers about Wallis, the more she realizes that Wallis was no sphinx, but a flesh and blood woman, who may have won the heart of a King, but still struggled to love herself.

In other words, Wally sees herself in Wallis.

It sounds trite, but it works, because Wallis's story is always told from the perspective of the Duke. He gave up the throne for her. He turned his back on his country and family to please her. But in W.E., through Wally's eyes, we see that Wallis gave up everything for the Duke: her freedom, her anonymity, and her voice.

"This isn't some kind of a fairy tale! Wake Up!" shouts a tear-streaked Wallis as she slaps Wally across the face in one of their more heated, imaginary exchanges.

Despite the Duchess's front of confidence and glamorous armor, we see her fragile interior. Wallis confesses that she was never a great beauty, so early on decided that she would "dress better than anyone else" to make up for her less than stellar looks. The film frequently flashes back in time to chronicle Wallis's rise from abused wife, to facile socialite, to despised mistress whom her sister-in-law, the future Queen Mum, called a "trollop."

In light of last year's The King Speech, which portrayed the Duchess as a frivolous leech of a woman, it was refreshing to see a film so sympathetic to her. Through Madonna's lens, we see Wallis's resistance to the King's proposal because of the destruction it would cause, her unease with British aristocracy, and her genuine concern for her family and friends. If you were set against her because of that famous photo of her shaking hands with Hitler, the film says she abhorred Nazism and only met with Hitler, as other heads of state did, as a formality.

In the end, Madonna's W.E., is less about a misunderstood historical figure, and more to do with a woman looking to another for inspiration.

In the final scene, Wally bids her imaginary Wallis goodbye, and asks her if she can really get a hold of her destiny.

Wallis lets her find that answer on her own.

Wally walks away a new woman.