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Split life; Madonna takes on life of royals in sincere drama

When the Peace Bridge opened in 1927, the guest of honor on hand to cut the ribbon was the future Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales. Gazing at the handsome young man, few could have guessed at the drama that lay ahead.

That he would fall in love with an American divorcee -- and give up the crown.

Not to mention that a millionaire pop star named Madonna would make a movie about him.

The movie, "W.E.," is about a young woman named Wally who is obsessed with the duchess of Windsor, the former Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up his crown. ("W.E." stands for Wallis and Edward, the pair's code for their romance.)

The film is set in 1998, the year the duke and duchess' effects went up for auction at Sotheby's. Wally is hanging out at the exhibit, daily, daydreaming. She was named for the duchess and now, married to a terrible, abusive husband, she broods about the duchess' life.

"What can it have been like to be loved so much?" she sighs.

The movie bounces between the two eras, contrasting the two women's lives.

I know, it sounds silly. Critics around the world have been killing this movie. And Lord knows I am no fan of Madonna.

So I am as surprised as anyone that -- well, I liked "W.E."

Madonna loves spectacle, and "W.E." is beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous. Which is crucial, considering that the duchess and the duke of Windsor were both fashion icons. (We have the duke to thank for the Windsor knot.)

The settings are glorious, too. Watching the duke (James D'Arcy) reading his abdication address, it's tough to keep your eye on him. You want to take in the room, the ceilings, the roaring fire.

It gets to be too much for some when Wally (Abbie Cornish, of "Bright Star") begins conversing, in her imagination, with Wallis (Andrea Riseborough). Sometimes, she imagines Wallis dancing rebelliously, as in an '80s music video.

On the other hand, writers and other artists know what it is like to walk around for days, months, even years with someone living in your head. "W.E." captures that.

"Get a life," the duchess snaps as Wally is entering Sotheby's for the umpteenth time.

There's a hilarious swat at last year's "The King's Speech," in which the duke and duchess of Windsor are portrayed as flighty idiots.

"W.E." settles that score by showing George VI fighting with his wife, who doesn't want him to return Edward's calls. "I don't want you to talk to your Nazi brother," she scolds.

"My brother is no Nazi, just because he met Hitler," the king stammers. "The prime minister had dinner with Stalin."

There is one genuinely odd, moving scene that takes place in 1974 as the duke is dying.

The movie makes mistakes. There is extreme domestic violence -- not necessary, I thought, and it did not ring true. There are silly things, things that don't make sense.

But it is just so sincere, which is why I forgave these sins. So what if the movie's messy? That's life.

The duchess of Windsor knew something about that.




3 stars (out of 4)

Starring: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D'Arcy.

Director: Madonna

Running time: 119 minutes

Rating: R for brief nudity and domestic violence

The lowdown: A modern-era woman obsesses over the story of the duke and duchess of Windsor.