It’s that time again. The nights are drawing in and, as the last of the summer sun is smothered behind a thick blanket of grey cloud and monotonous drizzle, we the British, withdraw to our country houses and settle down with a nice cup of tea to an evening of beating the servants in the drawing room. Or maybe just dive down beneath the duvet and inject our eyeballs with the reassuring sedative that is a costume drama.
‘Effie Gray’, is the sad tale of a young Scottish lass’s marriage to the famous Victorian critic, scholar and renowned eccentric John Ruskin. The film opens with Effie (Dakota Fanning) giddy with excitement at the thought of her impending nuptials to the handsome Mr Ruskin (Greg Wise) and their relocation from the wilds of Scotland to glamorous London. Her life is to be transformed and it is going to be wonderful.
This dream of paradise is soon shattered; on their wedding night Ruskin recoils in disgust at the sight of his bride’s naked body (historically, reputed to be either revulsion at her pubic hair or menstrual blood but not mentioned here) and he withdraws from what should be the normal pattern of marriage to concentrate solely on his work. The film then follows Effie’s attempts to coax Ruskin into being a proper husband, the conflict with her parents in-law and the flowering of her own personality and eventual emancipation from her unhappy marriage.
‘Effie Gray,’ though based on true events is the first original screenplay by Emma Thompson and I hate to say it, because I like Thompson, but it is clear to me this is not the work of skilled and experienced screen writer. It ticks all the boxes but not with any subtlety or artfulness.
For instance, Ruskin’s father played here by David Suchet is a man who places great stock in money and riches, to get this across almost every utterance he makes is to do with money. Then Effie herself, who in the beginning of the film is portrayed as an innocent and sweet girl, has to be shown to be intelligent and confident so suddenly and quite out of character she says something (vaguely) perceptive at a dinner of the Royal Academy only to never show such gumption again.
While this is an acceptable way of getting a character’s personality across, in Thompson’s hands it comes across as clunky, rushed and amateur.
The real problem with the script is that though we are constantly told what a social animal Effie is and how she lights up high society with her grace and charm, however it is only ever talked but never actually seen. For example, the couple travel to Venice for Ruskin’s work, where Effie apparently runs amok supping the delights of the Italian party circuit. Only she doesn’t.
She dances with a lusty Italian for a brief moment in a courtyard and pilots a gondolier and from all visible accounts is actually quite chaste. This would have been a great moment for the film to up the tempo and showcase a period ball or glamorous party but instead we stay at the same steady and plodding pace.
This may have been a financial decision or maybe, if we saw Effie cavorting around having fun, we may feel some sympathy for the prudish and weird Ruskin. Not that he would deserve it, as historically he was known to be extremely peculiar. But it would have at least made for a more dynamic and less black and white relationship.
Thompson does has a good ear for a funny line and amusing little bon mots pepper the script. The best is delivered by Julie Walters, who, alongside Suchet, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacob and James Fox fill out the cast with the familiar faces of certain generation. I love all these actors but surely we can liven things up a bit? There must be another middle aged actress outside the Dame Triangle that is Walters, Dench and Smith, deserving of such a role.
Greg Wise, who always gets his best jobs when his wife (Thompson) is involved, is pretty good as Ruskin but there was something about him in this part that screamed Steve Coogan, which made it hard for me to take him seriously. Dakota Fanning did very well with what was given to her and appeared to be channelling a young Kate Winslet, along with an impeccable British accent.
I also liked the use of imagery from Millais’s painting ‘Ophelia’. It was a nice little touch and serendipitous for the film makers that Gray’s companion had created a piece that reflected (somewhat) his future wife’s private life. Though Gray herself was doubtless a stronger individual than Hamlet’s spurned lover.
The contingent of ‘ladies of a certain age’ who sat alongside me in the audience, seemed to very much enjoy the film, so while to me it’s much more a case of ‘Iffy Gray’ than ‘Effie Gray’, it’s not hard to imagine that it will do well and make Emma and her mates some decent dosh.
Effie Gray is eleased in UK cinemas on 10th October 2014