Directed and written by Madonna, W.E. was released in 2011. W.E. tells the love story between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII (c.1935 to 1937), through the perception of Simpson, and of Wally Winthrop and her life in 1998. While somewhat unimpressed by the film when I first watched it a several years ago, its recent re-add to Netflix caught my attention. My historical and archive training caused me to react to the film differently. Instead of focusing on the lives’ of the two women throughout the film, I was pulled in by the historical analysis and the awful handling of historical items. The poor handling of antiques and archive material is what led me here, to my first blog post.
While Madonna’s focus was to tell the story of Wallis Simpson – an objective that I think she presented in a creative way, my issue is with the handling of Simpson’s items and collections by Wally and Evgeni (security guard and eventual lover of Wally), in the Sotheby’s auction house. Wally, visited the exhibit of Simpson’s items every day they were on display and attended the auction of when the items were sold off. The exhibition of the items allows potential buyers the opportunity to get to know the items that they may be interested in. Though I completely understand the concept, Wally’s constant handling of the objects makes me cringe. When the viewer first sees Wally at the exhibit, she runs her hand over Simpson’s table cloth, that she eventually picks up and the scene changes to Simpson using the item. While it was great way to see the items in use by Simpson, the handling by Wally made me uncomfortable. Although this was the first scene, handling objects that you could envision in a museum occurred frequently.
As the film continues, Wally is seen visiting the Sotheby’s Auction house, where it appears, she used to work during the Simpson exhibition. Shortly after the table cloth incident, Wally picks up a 19th-century wine glass and accidentally taps it against another one. She then walks by a cigarette holder that is open, and shuts it. Her constant visits lead to a friendship with a guard, Evgeni. One night, before she leaves, Evgeni asked Wally stay after closing with him, and they have a romantic evening among the Wallis Simpson collection. Evgeni greets Wally wearing a quilt, sans underwear, and a beefeater hat, both items that are probably auction items. When he opens champagne, it spills all over the rug and looks like it hits other furniture in the room. He then sits to play the piano, another auction item, and throws up the quilt to sit bare ass on the piano bench that has a fabric top. While I appreciate the humor, I cannot help but recoil at the careless handling of the items.
In addition to the handling, the selling and possession of Wallis Simpson’s items is also difficult to watch. While a full collection of Simpson’s items are sitting at the auction house, they are sold separately. A beautiful collection that could go to a museum – now separated and sold to private owners that may not ever become accessible to the public. In the end, Wally visits Mohamed Al-Fayed, who owns all of Simpson’s letters and is very selective over who he allows to read them. His selectiveness is due to his concern regarding interpretation of personal letters. While he may seem he is protecting Simpson, or her reputation, in actuality he is hiding her voice from history. He eventually lets Wally read them, due to her argument that she wants to understand the life of Edward and Simpson through Simpson. She reads them in a large room with a fire place and the box of letters. While the gentleman is known for keeping the letters in “amazing” condition, you see Wally taking the letters out of the box and unfolding them, then folding them back up once she is done. Once again, the unfolding and folding of the paper kills me because it puts continual stress on the paper and weakens the paper at the folds. I wanted to scream at screen, “don’t fold them back up.” I imagine acid, is also a large issue with those letters as well. For longevity, I envision those letters unfolded, in plastic sleeves, and in archival acid free folders and eventually digitized.
At the end of the film, Wally returns back to New York and is sitting on a park bench talking to Simpson. They’re saying goodbye, and Wally gives Simpson back her gloves, that she bought for $10,000 in an earlier part of the film. Simpson puts her gloves on, touches Wally’s face, then Wally walks away. It is a heartfelt scene, Wally no longer needs the romanticism of Simpson’s relationship with Edward – she read the letters and her rose-colored glasses are off, and now she is living her own happy ending with Evgeni. But! I know that Simpson is not actually there, so where are those $10,000 gloves? Did Wally just leave them on the bench? Did she imagine herself giving them away, but still has them at home? These are the questions I am agonizing over as the credit’s role.
Even though Simpson’s items were not in a museum, I could not help but watch the film as a curator. The poor practices of preservation, private ownership, and separation of collections happens routinely and hindrances on the lifespan and accessible of the items. While I do not know what the protocol is for exhibits in auction houses, touching items is always a no-no when it comes to historic items, especially in museums and please no eating or drinking. Overall, the film gives a beautiful retelling of the complicated and difficult relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.