Director: Richard Laxton
Screenplay: Emma Thompson
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge, Emma Thompson
Duration: 104 min
BBFC Certification: 12A
Effie Grey has languished in cinematic purgatory for almost the same amount of time that the real Effie Grey suffered in her marriage to Victorian art critic John Ruskin. The film was originally released in 2014 but a series of lawsuits over Emma Thompson’s script has ensured that it has never found an audience outside of a few film festivals and brief DVD releases. All of that is about to change, however; the film is being re-released this year, both on VOD in April and on new DVDs and Blu Rays in May, in the hope that it will finally find the audience that eluded it the first time round. The only question, then, is if it has been worth the wait?
There is certainly a substantial amount of prestige attached to the film. Written by and starring Emma Thompson (returning to the genre that won her Oscars for Sense and Sensibility and Howards End) and starring an extremely enviable cast (to say the least) that includes Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Julie Walters, David Suchet, Tom Sturridge, Robbie Coltrane, Russell Tovey and Derek Jacobi, Effie Grey seems tailor made to repeat the success of Thompson’s previous costume dramas. Yet by the time the film rather abruptly ends, you are left with a curiously vapid feeling of having been witness to only the tip of an iceberg. A vast emotional chasm is left frustratingly unexplored, much to the film’s detriment.
The story of Effie Grey and John Ruskin is a familiar one, having been explored numerous times across novels, stage and screen. For those unfamiliar, however (as I was before watching the film), the story follows the marriage of Effie Grey to the prominent art critic John Ruskin, ten years her senior. Their union is a disaster from the start, with Ruskin refusing to consummate the marriage. This drives Effie towards young artist and painter John Everett Millais, where a love triangle swiftly ensues. Occurring in the middle of the nineteenth century, Grey and Millais’ affair unsurprisingly caused a huge scandal at the time and its reverberations ensured that the tale is still being told more than 160 years later.
This most recent version of Effie Grey’s story begins where most period dramas end. Young and naive Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries the charmingly handsome and rich John Ruskin (Greg Wise) who swiftly rushes her back to his large country estate. At this point, Grey is living out the reality of an Austen-esque fairy tale, that of the young girl from a relatively humble background marrying the rich, handsome man of her dreams. Yet this dream swiftly descends into a nightmare on their wedding night. Seemingly horrified by the sight of Grey’s naked body, Ruskin swiftly turns from being kind and caring into a cold, cruel oppressor.
The first half of the film charts Grey’s subsequent alienation and entrapment in a horrendously cold and unfeeling marriage, where the emotional torment she is subjected to (she erroneously believes that the failure of the marriage is due to her own ‘hideousness’) eventually causes her hair to fall out. Her only forms of redemption come in the form of Emma Thompson’s sympathetic Lady Eastlake and later on, the artist John Millais (Tom Sturridge).
Yet as horrible as Grey’s situation is, the tragedy of her marriage in Effie Grey is shown rather than felt. The film never seeks to answer why Ruskin is so revolted by his wife and his emotional switch is so sudden that you wonder why he ever married her at all. Dakota Fanning’s insular, almost withdrawn performance doesn’t help, failing to convincingly chart Grey’s descent from happiness towards melancholy and eventually despair.
Yet not every aspect of the film’s depiction of their marriage is lacking. Grey’s general unhappiness and frustration are poignantly captured while the film’s muted, dusky palette powerfully reflects the darkness that haunts the couple’s life together; this moody aesthetic provides a refreshing, darkly naturalistic alternative to the bright primary colours that suffused last year’s Emma. Yet for everything it succeeds at, Effie Grey’s reticence to delve beneath the surface of its character’s lives and motivations robs it of a depth that is crucial to understanding the intricacies of such a tumultuous and mysterious marriage.
Ruskin in particular feels underdeveloped, morphing, as the film progresses, into an almost two dimensional villain. While Greg Wise’s performance is skilled enough to ensure that Ruskin never falls into parody and remains chillingly convincing as a cruel egotist, when you consider Ruskin’s real life and the controversies surrounding it (besides being a profoundly influential critic and philanthropic social campaigner, Ruskin had a disturbing interest in young girls that hinted strongly at paedophilia) you wish that the film had the courage to explore him in a more rounded, nuanced fashion than the binary deception presented here.
Things don’t get much better once Tom Sturridge arrives on the scene. His relationship with Grey feels ineffectual and slight, their time alone together rushed over in just a few, brief scenes. As their relationship develops, you feel that Millais is simply taking pity on Effie as he watches her humiliation and suffering under Ruskin’s cold barbs. The film certainly does not provide the sense that seeds are being sown for a lifelong relationship that would eventually sire eight children.
Effie Grey frequently makes up for these failings, however, by being a sumptuous looking production. Andrew Dunn’s cinematography frequently offers beautiful, painterly compositions (especially in Venice and among the Scottish countryside) while director Richard Laxton keeps an effective pace (for a period drama, at least) and dark tone throughout. The supporting cast, as is to be expected given their calibre, does a sterling job. Emma Thompson lights up whatever scene she is in, while Julie Walters plays excitingly against type as Ruskin’s mother, portraying a woman almost as cold and cruel as her son. Russel Tovey, meanwhile, manages to capture as much pathos in a brief scene towards the film’s conclusion as has been achieved in the previous ninety minutes. Your only wish is that actors such as David Suchet, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacobi and James Fox had more screen time!
For all the faults that can be found in the depiction of Ruskin and the film’s key relationships, as the film’s final, lingering shot makes abundantly clear, this is Effie Grey’s story and no one else’s. Effie Grey, in that sense, is not so much the exploration of a mysterious, failed marriage as it is a depiction of one woman’s brave fight against a suffocating patriarchal society dominated by masculine cruelty and oppression. In that sense it can be seen as a success. Yet, in terms of an effective drama, you are left with the lingering feeling that there was more to these relationships than the film ever cares or dares to explore. Ending abruptly and with no contextual information about the aftermath of her infamous affair (emphasising the film’s frustrating assumption that the audience is already aware of the story) Effie Grey leaves you with no definitive resolution, ending up as emotionally sterile as the decisive relationship it has sought to portray.
Effie Grey will be re-released in Virtual Cinemas and on VOD on the 19th April. A special collectors edition DVD and Blu Ray will be released on the 3rd May.