“Effie Gray”: An Old Story Makes a Comeback

This piece was originally written for “Writing the Film Review” taught by L.A. Times & NPR film critic Kenneth Turan at the USC Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism.

The story of Euphemia “Effie” Gray, the woman who shook England’s Victorian world through her annulment with art critic John Ruskin, is one that has been reenacted in almost every performance art form imaginable. Between plays for the stage and radio, silent and short films, operas, and literature, Effie Gray has become a muse much like Joan of Arc, a little less mysterious but similarly awe-inspiring in her tales of suffering and bravery. Such is the inspiration for the film Effie Gray, starring Dakota Fanning, Emma Thompson, Greg Wise, and Tom Sturridge.

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An enjoyable film, especially if one is particularly interested in costume dramas, such as The Duchess, The Young Victoria, or Pride and Prejudice, Effie Gray tells the story from the screenwriter’s perspective rather than that of the director, an intriguing position in which a feature film director isn’t often situated. Written and produced by Emma Thompson, who won an Academy Award for her script adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, Effie Gray derives its storytelling prowess from Thompson instead of its director Richard Laxton, who is most known for the biographical dramas, An Englishman in New York and Burton and Taylor, two films made for British television. Not that Laxton lacks in his abilities as a director, but it’s often the role of T.V. directors to stick to the script rather than solely taking their own auteurist approaches, a choice which feels deliberate throughout this film.

Effie Gray begins with overwhelming optimism, as Euphemia “Effie” Gray (Dakota Fanning) is engaged to the revered English art critic, John Ruskin (Greg Wise and Emma Thompson’s husband in real-life). Ruskin sees Gray as his muse and ideal of beauty, but the tide turns early in their marriage once he discovers his disgust for her naked body. From that point onward, Gray and Ruskin develop a strained relationship, provoking a burden of anxiety and depression in Gray, a theme permeating the film. Once, however, she meets pre-Raphaelite English painter, John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), Gray finds some relief, not forced solitude.

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Along with film composer Paul Cantelon, Emma Thompson and Richard Laxton work extra hard in simulating Gray’s quiet suffering. There are purposefully languid shots of Dakota Fanning, especially when her character is in complete solitude. Slow sequences of Fanning walking through English gardens, running in and out of Venice alleyways, or going underwater as she takes a bath all seem to indicate that depression reinvents one’s own interpretation of time. But in a modern filmmaking word, where movies like The Fast and the Furious 1–7 and Taken 1, 2, 3 convince audiences that quick-paced storytelling is key to today’s cinema habits, films like Effie Gray risk the possibility of going unnoticed and misinterpreted.

Dakota Fanning, who at age 21 somehow still maintains the untainted charm of a child, is perfect for the role of the young naive Effie Gray. Fanning approaches Gray like a careful study, demonstrating her slow yet silent descent into a close call with oblivion. This, along with the film’s slow shot sequences, helps establish Effie Gray’s overall demure presentation.

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But what gives the film its most sinister and unsettling quality is its soundtrack composed by Paul Cantelon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Other Boleyn Girl). Simplistic yet powerful, strings create a feeling of stasis underneath a solo piano, much like Phillip Glass’s score for The Hours. In this case, though, Cantelon creates aural cues for the viewer through unresolved chords, which viscerally imply that there is something disquieting behind the story of Effie Gray. Even in the film’s beginning moments when Gray and Ruskin’s marriage occurs, the score feels content and hopeful. Yet, upon initial notice of an issue with her new husband, the score turns subtly darker, slowly revealing shards of insecurity that continue throughout the film.

Although Effie Gray strives to depict an era, the film is on a modern mission, showcasing a woman who defied all expectations, even at the cost of societal acceptance. This concept isn’t new for biopics featuring a female lead, however. Yet what is most specifically intriguing about Effie Gray is the contextualizing of sexism via the confines of an unhappy marriage, much like the 2008 release of The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

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The story of Effie Gray may be burned out from centuries of retelling, but somehow in the inclusive pop culture at hand, its relevancy still feels compelling as film’s like Fifty Shades of Grey and Nymphomaniac challenge the idea of sex as a tool of power. Effie Grey may also be a story about marriage, but as Ruskin holds his disgust over a woman who’s never had sex before, the film present seemingly repressed sexual undertones, which feels chilling and complex.

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