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R. 1 hour, 58 minutes. At the Esquire.

Madonna's ambitious romantic drama "W.E." concerns what has often been touted as one of the 20th century's great love stories: the romance of Edward Prince of Wales and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

When Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936, his startling choice seemed to offer a stranger-than-fairy-tale triumph of love over power.

Brother Bertie went on to reign. But that story's so last year.

Madonna admits to being spellbound by the romance. After years of research, she began working on the script with Alek Keshishian (director of the highly successful documentary "Madonna: Truth of Dare").

"W.E." is the type of film one might expect from the icon. And, though it teeters on the high heels of its maker's ambitions, it's an impressive improvement over her debut feature, 2008's "Filth and Wisdom."

It is 1998, and Sotheby's is set to auction items from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's estate. Abbie Cornish portrays Wally, a former employee who has married well (or so it seems) and visits the auction house with frequency.

Unhappy in her marriage to a well- regarded psychiatrist, she takes refuge in Simpson and the prince's affair. She even makes an imaginary BFF of Wallis (Andrea Riseborough).

Sultry, dark-eyed actor Oscar Isaac portrays Evgeni, the Ukrainian security guard who observes and is intrigued by Wally.

There are screens aplenty here — security camera, laptop monitors, sleek televisions — and "W.E" deals with projection and overidentification, fame and privacy, desire and disappointment.

It also takes seriously material girls who may have more going on than meets the eye.

Did Wallis Simpson really win in the end? Can Wally find some measure of real happiness?

The film is stylishly shot. And, in weaving the stories of Wally and Wallis, Madonna trusts viewers to move from mood to mood, era to era without overexplanation, the way music-video editing long ago trained us to.

Not that "W.E" is all jump-cuts and haste.

In fact, the storytelling is at times too languid in getting to its (feminist) lessons about love and self-reliance.

Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567 or lkennedy@denverpost.com