When one of our national treasures, Emma Thompson, has a hand in anything, I am usually the first there. Although primarily known as an actress, every several years or so, we are treated to a screenplay from Thompson. Her latest offering tells the true story of the unhappy marriage between renowned art critic John Ruskin and his young bride, the titular Effie Gray. Ruskin cannot bring himself to consummate their union, for reasons that are unclear in the film, but historically believed to be due to disgust from either her menstrual blood or public hair. Ruskin appears cold and aloof to his wife, leading her to seek solace from the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais.
With the screenplay from Thompson, her first original screenplay, and director Richard Laxton at the helm, it would suggest that Effie Gray should be a success. The film does leave a good impression with the viewer, but the end result is slightly underwhelming. Thompson does have an eye for humour, and there are several witty lines dotted throughout, but the overall film is bland in certain areas. More dynamicism in their relationship, or scenes showing Gray as more than the miserable wife to a slightly strange, older man would have improved it greatly. In the rare scenes when we see Gray acting against her husband’s coldness, the audience are finally getting more narrative from the film, but only briefly.
In one particular scene, we see Gray attempting to run from an Italian man lusting after her in the streets of Venice. If this scene was longer and we saw more of the character as an individual, the tension would have increased to create more drama. Although it is possible that a scene such as this could make Ruskin a more sympathetic character, which the film has tried to avoid at all cost. The film keeps our sympathy with Gray, and in doing so shows a one side portrayal of the marriage. The context is black and white; Gray is good, Ruskin is bad. This element reduces the emotional impact of film itself, and our sympathies are cinematically instructed to lie solely with Gray for the unhappy marriage.
With Ruskin as such a passive character, sympathy continues to lie with Gray, even as she becomes closer to Millais. Although causing a scandal in society, the scandal itself did not involve sex. For such a prudish era, a scandal between a married woman and an unmarried man without the involvement of sex represents the attitude of the time, and such attitudes are represented through the emotionally stifled characters. Untimely, neither Ruskin nor Gray are developed enough to care about, leaving the film with little to revolve around.
The casting is an area which is certainly not lacking, with Greg Wise (Thompson’s real life husband) as John Ruskin, Dakota Fanning as Effie Gray and Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais. The supporting cast includes many well established actors, such as Julie Walters, David Suchet, Derek Jacobi, James Fox, Robbie Coltrane and Russell Tovey. Thompson herself also makes an appearance in the film, which is wonderful to see, as she steals the very few scenes she is in. Thompson is a break from the prudish times in which the film is set, as she provides much needed support to Gray. The humorous lines peppered throughout the script are often delivered by Thompson, showcasing her aptitude for comic timing.
Dakota Fanning must be given credit for her wonderful performance. A former child star who has already proven that she is more than capable of holding a film on her own, having played the daughter of a mentally challenged man fighting for custody at the age of only seven, in I Am Sam. This led to Fanning being the youngest person ever to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, and rave reviews for her performance. Her career has continued to grow steadily, with her abilities as an actress never faltering. Fanning is in almost every scene, interacting with her A-list co-stars, whilst maintaining an impeccable English accent and portraying her prison-like lifestyle.
Effie Gray is an enjoyable film. It is emotional and humorous, but it adds nothing new or truly unique to the period drama scene. The film is repressed, as are the emotions it is portraying. An established fan of any of the cast members may well enjoy the film, and the scenery during the scenes in Scotland is breathtakingly beautiful. However, when it comes down to Thompson’s legacy, I feel she will be held in higher regard for her other work.
Effie Gray will be released on DVD on 23rd February 2015.