Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Juicy story too subdued in lovely but listless 'Effie Gray'

The first time Emma Thompson wrote a movie script, she won an Oscar for her smart and lively adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. She doesn't have the good fortune to collaborate with Jane Austen on her new film, Effie Gray, but she does have a fascinating true story to tell in her original screenplay. The real-life Effie Gray was an innocent country girl wed to influential London art critic John Ruskin at age twenty, in one of the most bizarro marriages of the era, even by Victorian standards.

It's a tale rife with thwarted desire, confused sexuality, monstrous in-laws, cruelty, scandal, forbidden love, and Pre-Raphaelite art. And Thompson and director Richard Laxton have assembled a cast of stalwart British thesps to tell it. But as juicy as the story ought to be, the movie just misses the mark dramatically. The acting is generally first-rate, and the film is lovely to look at, but the writing is often flat, as if Thompson were trying so hard not to sensationalize the story that she drained the life out of it instead.

Effie and John: not exactly a fairy tale
In her clever prologue, Thompson sets up the story as if it were a fairy tale about a beautiful young girl (Dakota Fanning, as Effie) who leaves her drafty home in Scotland as bride to a famous and wealthy man (Greg Wise, as John). "Her mother and father were kind," the narrator intones. "But his were wicked."

And how. Effie soon realizes she's married the entire Ruskin household, including John's imperious mother (Julie Walters), who still bathes him, and his father (David Suchet), who prizes his son's influence as a critic for increasing the value of the paintings he invests in. They stand guard over every precious minute of their son's day so he has plenty of time to write, and not be distracted by petty matters, like a wife. Effie is ignored by everyone, including John; on their first night together, when she plucks up the nerve to strip off her chemise, a horrified John walks out of the room.
The real Effie Gray

Effie is untouched, unloved, and belittled at every turn. It's not until his parents commission a portrait of John from one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters he has championed, John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), that anybody begins to pay attention to her. (Read more)

Btw, Internet commentators have objected to the use of Millais' famous painting of Ophelia on one version of the poster (above), implying that Effie was the model. But in the film, it's clear that Effie attends an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art where the painting is already on display before she and Milllais ever meet. But the painting does recur throughout the film as a potent symbol of the way Effie is drowning in the social and sexual mores of the day—until she dares to make a gutsy move to free herself.

The real-life Gray is famous for fighting back against the conventions of her era. But this satisfying conclusion to her story is only hinted at in the film, while we don't see enough of her courage and determination in achieving it.

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