Lots of Bodices, No Heavy Breathing

'Effie Gray' is an effective portrait of an oppressive relationship

If you’ve heard of Effie Gray, that’s probably because you’ve heard about its legal history. Two writers, separately, claimed screenwriter Emma Thompson (who appears, delightfully, as Lady Eastlake) plagiarized this story about Euphemia Gray’s life, and the film’s release was held up for the better part of three years.

Thompson was vindicated—and the closing credits have a card that reads “Original screenplay by Emma Thompson” as a quiet but pointed “Fuck you” to the other writers—but the movie has suffered. There has been little to no publicity, and its opening was pushed back several times from its first intended release. Now the film will have an invisible asterisk hovering next to it.

Pity. In many ways, Effie Gray is a smart, sharp feminist film, and it deserves to be seen by as many people who can see it.

Of course, you have to be open to watching the story of an unconsummated love triangle unfold over the course of nearly two hours. There is much heaving and heavy breathing—just not of the bodice type.

Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning) falls in love with her former teacher, the much-older art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), and they marry in 1848. As history tells it, as does the movie, Ruskin is disgusted with Effie’s body when he sees it on their wedding night, and he storms off in a snit.

If there is a better way to garner empathy for Effie, I’m not sure what it is. We're right there with her as she tries to make way in the Ruskin household, which is run by Ruskin’s overbearing mother (Julie Walters) and simpering-one-moment-nasty-the-next father (David Suchet). (What one would give for Freud’s opinion of these two, but we’re a number of years too early for that.)

Effie spends the next five years going in and out of depression. Her husband’s dislike of her grows with each passing day, and he is completely unsympathetic. At several points, Effie takes ill and is bedridden, and one doctor (an effective Robbie Coltrane) tells Ruskin, “For you, I prescribe sharper eyes and a keener ear. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with your wife that simple love and affection will not cure.”

Simple advice, but it goes unheeded. Ruskin is, bluntly put, an asshole. (He’s gone down in history as a celebrated writer and asexual twit.) Greg Wise has the ability to play the assholishness quietly to the hilt, with a clipped speaking manner and a gaze that makes him look as if he just can’t believe Effie would find her life anything less than perfect.

But Effie is quietly, brutally oppressed. And this being a time when women had no rights, she’s stuck. Even when she meets and eventually falls in love with Everett Millais (a strong Tom Sturridge), she—and they—know better than to carry on an affair.

Fanning does the best she can, but there isn’t much for her to do but look tired. How does one play a defeated soul but to look defeated? The other actors are all sharp as tacks. Thompson makes the most of her three or four scenes, breathing life into them when otherwise the movie (correctly) lacks vigor. Effie Gray isn’t an easy viewing experience, but it has the goods for a patient audience. It will stay the dragons awhile.

Directed by Richard Laxton
With Fanning, Wise, and Thompson

Jean Cocteau Cinema

108 min.

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