Effie Gray Film Review

Effie Gray is based on a true story of Victorian high society, unconsummated marriage and a teenage bride whose steely determination is a symbol of female empowerment.

The film is directed by Richard Laxton and the screen play is written by Oscar winner Emma Thompson herself with an all-star cast featuring the brilliant Dakota Fanning, Robbie Coltrane, David Suchet, Julie Walters, James Fox and Derek Jacobi. If a film could win awards simply for having the best British actors in a generation all in one film, Effie Gray would triumph. However, it’s brilliant for a very different reason.  Dakota Fanning, who happens to be American.

Dakota Fanning steals the show as a teenage bride with ideals of happy marriage, children and supporting her husband in a regimented Victorian society. Her “much older” husband in the film is played by Thompson’s real life husband Greg Wise, who also starred in Sense and Sensibility. He plays John Ruskin, a famous Victorian art critic who is dominated by his parents’ belief that he is special. His parents are played by David Suchet and Julie Walters, who puts in a memorable straight laced performance despite being known for her brilliant comedic timing.

John Ruskin was a friend of Effie Gray’s family and we see flashbacks of a young Effie alongside him looking at art which hints at the idea of grooming, but it’s little more than a hint. Once married Ruskin is disgusted with his new wife’s body and in a harrowing scene walks straight past her naked and exits the bedroom. This scene sets up what is a film of mounting oppression in which the pace of the screen play seems to compound the viewer’s increasing discomfort with Effie’s lot in life and the desperation of a society in which virtually no-one gets divorced and women’s opinions count for very little.

In a strange twist, John’s ego is flattered with a commission from his father for one of the leading artists of the day to create a portrait of John. He decides to take his young bride and the artist to a secluded spot in Scotland, where the producer reliably tells me it “rained like cats and dogs all week”. This adds to the melancholy of the film. Not surprisingly the frustrated Effie falls for the kind-hearted creative artist, something which John appears to be encouraging from a distance, if only so he can tell Effie’s younger sister, who he’s started to groom, how wicked Effie is.

This is a hard-hitting film, showing an empire at the top of it’s game and yet for women, a life which is severely limited and judged. There are some wonderful performances, in particular by the warm Lady Eastlake, played by Emma Thompson, who takes Effie under her wing. Dakota Fanning steals the show. She could have portrayed a naive little girl railing angrily against society, but her acting is that good that in many scenes she doesn’t have to say anything, you can see the pain and acknowledgement in her eyes. It’s a hauntingly strong performance that rather than showing an acceptance of sacrifice, which I’m sure many Victorian women had to succumb to, portrays Effie as an intelligent woman who diligently sets about finding a solution against all the odds.

Sexless marriage is a difficult subject, which hasn’t really been covered before and for that Emma Thompson is very brave and, I think, quite clever in selecting a brilliant story to tell. She does well to include a rich mixture of stories and characters to that whilst you are aware of the main plot, it doesn’t dominate the film. There is a real attempt to understand why John behaves the way he does, his complex relationship with his parents and their love and desire for him to be lauded in society that ultimately causes a scandal. The fact that so many leading actors joined the film is testament to the story’s interest and Thompson’s skill at screen writing. She’s at the top of her game and it’s refreshing as well that she really makes an even bigger star of Fanning in this film. It is a tale of oppression, torment, twisted ideals and female empowerment.

I won’t spoil the ending, but if you want to read the true account of what happened in this Victorian scandal of the day, you can find out more here.

The Creative Grid rating 9/10

Release Date: October 2014


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