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
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
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.
Wise, and Thompson
Santa Fe Reporter