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Madonna says she identifies with Wallis Simpson

There may be few people better suited than Madonna to tell the story of the two-time American divorcee for whom Britain's King Edward VIII abdicated his throne.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There may be few people better suited than Madonna to tell the story of the two-time American divorcee for whom Britain's King Edward VIII abdicated his throne.

The star herself acknowledges the parallels with Wallis Simpson, the central figure in her sophomore directorial effort, "W.E.," which made its world premiere out of competition at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday.

She ticked off their common traits: Americans married to Brits. A shared love of fabulous clothes. A sense of adventure. Tenacity, resourcefulness and resilience. But on a deeper level, Madonna can relate to the limitations imposed by enormous fame — or, in the case of Simpson, notoriety.

"I think once you become famous, you have to pretty much relinquish the idea that people are going to see you for who you are, or look beyond the surface of things," Madonna told a small group of reporters. "I think that was a source of great frustration for Wallis Simpson and for Edward VIII, because after he abdicated, they didn't really have the opportunity to defend themselves.

"So hopefully, I have been able to do that for Wallis Simpson through my film."

Madonna spent several years researching before sitting down to write the film with Alek Keshishian, the director of her "Truth or Dare" documentary. What emerges is a sympathetic portrait of the oft-maligned Simpson that attempts to show what the American divorcee — and not just the king — sacrificed to marry in 1937.

"I think she felt an existential loneliness," Madonna said.

"W.E." — short for Wallis and Edward, who are portrayed by Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy — tells Simpson's story through the eyes of a modern-day namesake who seeks solace from her unhappy marriage in the details of what in its day was considered the romance of the century.

Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) becomes obsessed with a Sotheby's auction of personal items that once belonged to Wallis and Edward, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The everyday objects — an engraved cigarette case, a martini shaker — become a sort of portal between the 1930s and 1998, the year of the real-life auction. In a testament to their enduring fascination, the sale totaled $23.4 million, three times Sotheby's original estimate.

The movie covers the same historical period as last year's Oscar-winning "The King's Speech," which focused on Edward's brother Bertie, who strived to overcome a speech impediment as he was elevated to the throne in the wake of his brother's abdication.

"I view the success off that film as laying the ground work for my film," Madonna said. "There's a little bit of history, and a little bit of knowledge. We are not starting from a blank slate."

Much of Simpson's inner life in the film is revealed by the Duchess's correspondence with the Duke and other confidantes.

In the film, Wallace confides in a letter to her aunt, "You have no idea how hard it is to live out the great romance of the century, and to know I will have to be with him, always and always and always and always."

Madonna read numerous books and viewed footage in her research and adamantly rejects contentions that Simpson was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, a point she seeks to rebut in the film.

"In fact, I believed she was a Nazi too, when I started my investigation. But after years of research, I could find no empirical evidence proving she was a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer," Madonna said.

While she and her husband did have lunch with Hitler, and Simpson met with Hitler's foreign minister, Madonna said they were far from the only ones in that era to do so.

"There was nothing unusual about them having a meeting at that time," Madonna said. "I believe people wanted to undermined their popularity once they abdicated."

The film is rich in sometimes dizzying visual detail, with a sumptuous wardrobe created by Arianne Phillips from photographs of the Duke and Duchess together and studies of fashion archives and museums. The jeweler Cartier also recreated copies of pieces that the Duke had commissioned for the Duchess, apparently an attempt to make up for the royal jewels that would never be hers.

Madonna said she wanted to indulge in the luxury as a counterpoint to the poverty of the inner lives of the two protagonists: "To make the point that no matter how beautiful and glamorous your surroundings, there is no guarantee for happiness."

For the film's press debut, Madonna wore a replica of a bracelet of Latin crosses made for Simpson by Cartier, with the birthstones of her four children, and a prim dark dress with a high white collar and white trim along the sleeves that she said would have appealed to Simpson.

Madonna said she received support for the project from both her two director ex-husbands, Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie. But she also acknowledged that that during her nearly 10-year marriage to Ritchie, she was intimidated from directing.

"I didn't think I had the right to make a film until I paid my dues, which I did by making "Filth and Wisdom" in 2008, she said.

Madonna, the enduring pop icon who has been a dancer, singer, actress and now director, says all of her experience is coming together in "W.E."

"I see myself as a storyteller. Film has always informed the other areas of my work. I don't think that being a filmmaker is such a big leap," she said. "I think all of my work before actually prepared me for the responsibility of filmmaking."

Her actors brimmed with praise for her directorial skills.

"I never experienced a director more prepared, more inexhaustible, more excited about the subject material," D'Arcy said. "There is no question — because it is Madonna — it comes with an element of fear, which she dismisses instantly because there is work to be done."