REVIEW – Effie Gray (2012)

FilmJuice have my review of Richard Laxton’s Effie Gray, a biopic dealing with the disastrous marriage between Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray and the eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin. Like many of the books, plays and films that have dealt with doomed marriage, Laxton’s film lays the blame squarely on Ruskin’s refusal to consummate the marriage while an ambitious script by the actress Emma Thompson tries to account for his reluctance in terms of Victorian society’s ambient sexism. This film has something of a troubled history as while it was completed over two years ago, two separate (and ultimately groundless) plagiarism cases prevented the film’s release. When the film did finally limp onto British cinema screens, it did so on the same weekend as Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (a film that also featured the couple) and without the support of Thompson who refused to do any publicity for the film despite both writing it and appearing in it. While it may be a bit gauche to speculate as to why Emma Thompson would refuse to do any publicity for a film she once considered an intensely personal project, I think it has something to do with the fact that Laxton really seems to struggle with the film’s feminist themes:

The real tragedy here is that while Thompson’s script may try to tell the story of a feminist icon, the man employed to turn that script into a film took his cues from John Ruskin and contented himself with a sexless doll.

The problem is that the script and the film are pulling in opposite directions. Things start off quite well as Thompson’s script and Laxton’s direction combine quite well to expose the everyday sexism of Victorian society. Unfortunately, when asked to turn this social analysis into a psychological explanation for Ruskin’s refusal to have sex with his wife, the film dithers and slithers and winds up not saying anything at all. The reason for this failure of characterisation is that while Laxton wanted to make a film about Ruskin, the script is actually about Gray and so it is quite content to voice a few ideas about Ruskin before moving onto the meat of the film: Effie’s experiences in a loveless marriage and how she found the agency required to take control of her own life. In fairness to Laxton, Thompson’s script really does not give Dakota Fanning a huge amount to work with but a director who was sensitive to Thompson’s aims would have realised that Effie’s character lay not so much in what she did and did not say but in how she felt while she was saying it. A sympathetic director would have encouraged Fanning to create an Effie Gray who was visibly constrained and ill-at-ease with the society she inhabited but instead we are given an Effie who is almost hypnotically passive… a beautiful china doll in need of nothing more than a good fuck and a house to keep.

As my score of 2 out of 5 would suggest, I did not enjoy Laxton’s Effie Gray but my lack of enjoyment stemmed more from my intense feelings of frustration at what an awesome film this could have been if either the script or the director had been allowed to take precedence:

  • A director sympathetic to Thompson’s script would have kept the focus on Effie and realised that the final act was actually the climax in a series of social confrontations that began on the day that Effie arrived at Ruskin’s family home. The film’s final act feels a lot like a thriller with Effie sneaking around to meet doctors and lawyers under the noses of her family and a sympathetic director might have taken this ending as a cue to turn Thompson’s script into a social thriller comparable to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White where an intelligent and ambitious young woman finds herself fighting for freedom against villainous men and matriarchs who are supported by a set of social attitudes that are designed to break women on the wheel and turn them into objects. All of those scenes in which Effie clashes with older women should have been tiny battles of wit rather than acts of one-sided oppression!
  • A screenwriter sympathetic to Laxton’s interest in Ruskin might have connected with the character’s humanity, taken his asexuality at face value and dealt with how it must have felt to be asexual when both your wife and your entire society expect you to be sexually active. If we do assume that Ruskin was asexual then Thompson’s suggestion that he was some kind of incestuous misogynist with a fondness for young girls is nothing short of monstrous. Even if a script didn’t assume that Ruskin was naturally asexual, it could still explore the links between his refusal to consummate his own marriage with his parents’ tendency to treat him as a child. Alternately, one could argue that Ruskin was simply an introverted and cerebral man who was far more comfortable treating love as an abstract concept than as a physical action.

So I guess what I am really saying is that while I found Ruskin and Gray’s marriage to be a really fascinating subject, I was not impressed by Thompson and Laxton’s take on it.