'Effie Gray': Film Review

Courtesy of Sovereign Films
Dreary shades of Gray

Scripted by Emma Thompson, this legally troubled biopic dramatizes a notorious true story of dysfunctional marriage and sexual scandal in Victorian London

Finally limping into British theaters this weekend after two years in legal limbo, Effie Gray revisits an infamous true story of sexual repression and social scandal among the art-world elite of 19th Century London. It is billed as Oscar-winner Emma Thompson’s first original screenplay, but originality is a touchy subject here, since the release was delayed by two unsuccessful plagiarism lawsuits from authors who had previously dramatized the same material. Perhaps bruised by her court battles, Thompson now appears to have disowned the movie, shunning its London premiere and avoiding promotional interviews.

But maybe Thompson is smart to keep a low profile, because Effie Gray is an exquisitely dreary slice of middlebrow armchair theater which adds little new to a much-filmed story. Despite a lurid plot involving sex scandal, family dysfunction and proto-feminist revolt, the end result is depressingly conventional and deadeningly tasteful. Thompson’s global profile and a starry cast, led by Twilight veteran Dakota Fanning, should ensure some audience interest. But this timid bio-drama is a washed-out watercolour instead of the bold, lusty, vivid psycho-sexual canvas it should have been.

Victorian London’s leading art critic, John Ruskin (Greg Wise) marries his teenage Scottish wife Euphemia “Effie” Gray (Fanning) in 1848. She moves into his family home on the leafy fringes of South London, where Ruskin’s overbearing mother Margaret (Julie Walters) greets the interloper with all the icy territorial suspicion of Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Ignored by her increasingly priggish husband, Effie becomes paranoid and sick. During a therapeutic stay in Scotland, she starts to form a flirtatious love triangle with rising pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Gray’s marriage eventually breaks down when she seizes the initiative, filing for annulment on the grounds of Ruskin’s impotency.

In real life, during the scandalous court case that followed, Ruskin notoriously blamed “circumstances in her person” for his failure to rise to the occasion with Gray. Biographers have pored over his meaning ever since, with some suggesting the unworldly man of letters was repulsed by his young bride’s pubic hair or menstrual blood. Since this is pure speculation, Thompson wisely keeps the incident off screen. Strangely, however, she does not even address Ruskin’s bodily revulsion issues until the film’s final act, withholding a key piece of the jigsaw for no clear reason. Gray’s subsequent long and happy marriage to Millais is only opaquely signposted too, another odd omission.

There are many more wrong notes here, notably the miscasting of Wise, almost two decades older than Ruskin, who was 29 when he married the 19-year-old Gray. Actors often play younger or older, of course, but an obviously middle-aged Ruskin inevitably adds extra layers of unintentional Freudian weirdness to the character’s already dubious relations with both his teen bride and his domineering parents. Wise seems like a baffling choice of leading man to play an innocent, sexually confused Mummy’s Boy trapped in late adolescence. Naturally, the coincidental fact that he is married to Thompson off screen had no bearing on him winning this lead role purely on his own merits.

Fanning is more impressive as Gray, mimicking an upper-class English accent with aplomb, though the real Effie reportedly spoke with a Scottish brogue. Her wounded, emotionally conflicted performance is not exactly layered, but it never lapses into melodramatic victimhood either. Reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet at times, Fanning is also an uncannily close facial match for Shakespeare's doomed heroine Ophelia in the celebrated Millais painting, though Gray was not the model. The film's UK distributors have spotted this similarity, reproducing the canvas on promotional posters alongside Fanning's face.

For a movie at least partially concerned with artistic ideals of beauty, Effie Gray has a surprisingly drab visual palette. Director Richard Laxton, whose track record is mostly in British television, and cinematographer Andrew Dunn typically frame dimly lit interiors with a flat, cramped, small-screen grammar. They even manage to make Venice look dull, though admittedly the Scottish landscape scenes have a certain rain-soaked splendor. Critics are bound to make unflattering comparisons with Mike Leigh’s upcoming period biopic Mr Turner, which features the same milieu and some of the same key characters, but shot with a much more self-consciously painterly eye.

Some of the blame for this dismally underpowered effort must lie with Thompson, who not only penned the screenplay but also takes one of the most sympathetic minor roles as Gray’s kindly London protector Lady Eastwick. Instead of investigating Ruskin’s dysfunctional sexuality through a 21st century lens, or dissecting Gray’s marriage from a post-feminist angle, or satirizing the self-imposed prison of stifling social manners that made these poor souls so pointlessly miserable in the first place, Thompson seems satisfied to serve up yet another surface-level rehash of Victorian costume-drama clichés. Result: a film which is as prim, prudish and passionless as its characters.

Production companies: Sovereign Films, High Line Pictures

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, David Suchet, James Fox, Claudia Cardinale, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacobi

Director: Richard Laxton

Screenwriter: Emma Thompson

Producers: Andreas Roald, Donald Rosenfeld

Cinematography: Andrew Dunn

Editor: Kate Williams

Production designer: James Merrifeld

Music: Paul Cantelon

Casting: Celestia Fox

Costume designer: Ruth Myers

Sales company: High Line Pictures

Rated 12A (U.K.), 108 minutes