Having illuminated the silver screen across a glorious 30 year career, captivating, enchanting and moving audiences across those years, Emma Thompson has displayed an aptitude for her writing credentials too, penning the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, and both offerings to have come out of the Nanny McPhee world. Her latest writing endeavour is Effie Gray, though unlike her on-screen performances, this picture is merely good, not great.
Based on real events, and dubbed the ‘Victorian love triangle’ – we delve back into 19th century Britain, where we meet the enthusiastic and progressive Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning), who weds the apathetic art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), before moving down from Scotland to live alongside her new husband and his authoritarian parents (Julie Walters and David Suchet). Bored, despondent, and melancholic – Effie has nothing to do with her days, while her husband won’t even broach the idea of having sexual intercourse. Though when she meets the inspiring Lady Eastlake (Thompson) and painter Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) she discovers there may just be more to life than this.
Effie Gray is a candid study of female oppression, as while the primary relationship suffers from its own peculiar issues that are very intimate to this pair – it’s emblematic of a deeper rooted, inherent sexism that existed at that time. Such themes are enhanced through imagery too, as we’re often shown pieces of art that feature distressed, vulnerable women. It’s somewhat unsubtle in its conviction, yet that’s not something that can be said of the rest of this piece, which is told predominantly in the sub-text. While admiring director Richard Laxton for this brooding, somewhat elusive production, the audience are left to crave a defining, dramatic moment, or an impactful crescendo to illuminate this narrative – and yet we’re left wanting, in a film that’s very much one note, rarely deviating away from the same, humdrum tone.
The performances, however, are immensely impressive, in particular that of Walters, who, as always, brings such depth to the role at hand. Yet it simply isn’t enough to save this picture from major bouts of tedium, as a slow-burning picture that is neither uplifting, nor is it devastating, without that emotional punch needed to elevate this away from the inevitable obscurity that beckons.