Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: W.E. and The Iron Lady, two flicks from female film directors in their mid-50s—one of whom is Madonna—about legendary British ladies of yore.
PremiseW.E. follows two plot lines. First we have the scandalous love story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Prince Edward VIII (William D’Arcy). Simpson, a married American, is on her second husband, and Edward is on his way to the British throne—but it appears the romance blossoming between the two is enough reason for him to give up all that. So after he becomes King Edward VIII, ignoring the wishes of his primmer-than-prim family, he abdicates. What follows is the story of a scandal and the toll it takes on the couple and the royal family. All this background drama we learn through the film’s second plot line, which follows a modern woman of 1998, Wally (Abbie Cornish), who believes it’s important to find out the true story behind the fairy tale. And so, Wally persuades a collector to allow her to read letters between Wallis and Edward, or W.E., and subsequently delves into the “greatest romance of the century.” From the blurred presence of Wallis in Wally’s room around 2:02, the overlay of both reading the same letter at the end of the trailer, and, obviously, the names, we guess it’s going to be a story of revelation for both heroines. The Iron Lady tells the tale of another oft-demonized historic British female, Margaret Thatcher. With Meryl Streep in the hot seat as Britain’s first female and longest-running Prime Minister, we enter Thatcher’s world and see her in a variety of moments at home and on the job, during her campaign, and at her 11-year gig as the leader of Great Britain. Basically, it offers entry into the private world of a public figure. OK. We’ll admit, The Iron Lady looks grayer, less visually sumptuous, and certainly less sexy than W.E.‘s world of 1936—but the more modern storyline with Abbie Cornish isn’t really tooting any horns. With The Iron Lady, at least we know we’ll be watching a film that’s attempting to capture something a bit more serious than a love story. This is a woman whose image is hotly contested. While some praise Thatcher for her massive feminist achievement as the first female world leader in the Western world, others say her time in office pushed Great Britain back decades. Also, it is in part a makeover story—and those are always, always fun. Advantage: The Iron Lady The Ladies Technically, there are three heroines that needed to be considered here: Wallis, Wally and Margaret. If it were just in the names, Wally would cinch this one for W.E. simply because this is the first human character we’ve ever heard with the name. How unique. On a broader spectrum however, there are few other considerations that need to be made. First, in regards to the trailer’s performances, all the ladies do well, but Riseborough and Streep, surprise, really are a pleasure to watch. We only exclude Cornish because her melodramatic story probably didn’t produce the challenges the other two actresses faced in their roles, and also, it’s boring. But we’re going to do something crazy now and not give it to Meryl Streep—at least not completely. However cheesy W.E.’s trailer is, or however much The Iron Lady reeks of Oscar gold, we really can’t choose between Riseborough and Streep. Fun fact: Riseborough actually played Thatcher in a BBC film Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley three years ago! But this isn’t a competition of who played a better Thatcher. It goes without saying that any actress can appear lacking compared to Streep—but Riseborough, a Brit, pulls off an American accent and the presence of a woman who can capture the heart of a king. Compare this performance to Riseborough’s turn as the mousy Rose in this year’s Brighton Rock, and you can’t not be impressed. Advantage: Tie Nostalgia Both films are set in eras past, some not so distant. With W.E. we get 1930s Europe and 1998 New York. With The Iron Lady, it’s Great Britain of the ’70s through the ’90s, at least from what we can see in the trailer. The 1930s, as seen in W.E., are vibrant and unique. The richer-than-richer lifestyle of the couple gives way to verdant landscapes and enviable pastimes. We are also especially fond of Wallis’ chic wardrobe. The world of Abbie Cornish’s character, circa 1998, however, is a strange look back to the past. To feel nostalgic for 1998 seems a bit premature, especially when all we get to reminisce about is a lot of black, neutrals, and trench coats. With The Iron Lady, on the other hand, we enter the world of late-20th-century Britain—i.e., shoulder pads, boxy suits, wallpaper, and those cute hair dryers whose technology we can’t say we completely understand. Still, as true to the times as The Iron Lady appears to be, and even considering the “so what?” quality of W.E.‘s 1998, we’re going to give it to the latter film. There just aren’t many decades that can beat the ’30s in terms of sheer detail and imagination. Advantage: W.E.
Supporting Cast Both films are lacking in star wattage in their supporting casts, but exude talent nonetheless. With W.E., we get Oscar Isaac (the bad-boy husband from Drive), James D’Arcy, (Secret Diary of a Call Girl) as Edward, and James Fox, a British actor with a long TV and film career that includes roles in Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Iron Lady, we get a mix of Brits as well, including Iain Glen and Harry Lloyd, both recently seen in Game of Thrones (as Ser Jorah Morment and Vasarys Tagarye, respectively, for those who care). And then there’s Jim Broadbent, who plays Denis Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s husband. Broadbent won an Oscar in 2001 for his touching role in Iris and has been a British mainstay in the film world for decades—a fact that is proven by his participation in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Bridget Jones’ Diary and the Harry Potter film, franchise which attempted to cast pretty much every great British actor alive. For putting Professor Slughorn in a leading role, we give this one to The Iron Lady. Advantage: The Iron Lady Director Probably the most fun contest of the lot is the one between directors. At the helm of W.E., we have pop star, actress, mother, designer, and sophomore director Madonna! Now compared to her first effort, Filth and Wisdom, which The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane said a 10-year-old with iMovie could make, Madonna has come a long way. She even co-wrote the screenplay. All in all, W.E. looks beautiful, genuine, and seems to have some pretty solid acting performances, even in its 1998 world—but we’ll get to that later. Then we have The Iron Lady‘s Phyllida Lloyd, whose most famous directorial film credits include Mamma Mia! and Macbeth. In fact, The Iron Lady is just her third feature film—Lloyd has spent the majority of her career working in theater. The jump from theater to film is not quite as large of the jump Madonna made into the director’s chair, but Lloyd deserves credit where credit is due, even though we’re not quite fans of the Mamma Mia! movie. First off, Lloyd took on an excellent script from Abi Morgan, who also penned this year’s Shame and BBC’s most recent critic’s darling The Hour (like Mad Men for the ‘50s TV journalism world). Then, of course, there’s the inherent difficulty of taking on a story of such importance and weight and directing one of the greatest actresses of our time. If that doesn’t make the case for Lloyd enough, then let’s discuss the 1998 storyline of W.E. It’s a sappy, blah element of the trailer that seems more like a crutch than a necessary plot device. We couldn’t be less excited to watch Abbie Cornish act, and that says something. Advantage: The Iron Lady Verdict While we celebrate the growth evident in Madonna’s directorial talents, her writing, her nicely-picked cast, and her excellent ’30s period attire, we can’t help but see some undesirable elements of the film in the just the few random scenes we’ve seen. It’s tough going up against a Meryl Streep movie destined for the Oscars, but Streep’s performance is just one of the championing factors of The Iron Lady, which include rock solid direction, writing and acting. Sorry, Madge. Winner: The Iron Lady