|'The only time any spark is shown is when Emma Thompson shows up, full of vitriol as the practical forward-thinking adviser to Effie.'|
We are only one year removed from the cinematic release of Effie Gray, yet it feels like the veritable lifetime, such is the ease with which Richard Laxton's Drama slipped by, almost unnoticed.
Laxton's period piece, about the relationship between Victorian art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and the titular Effie (Dakota Fanning), who becomes his wife soon after the film's opening, is given a powerful feminist direction by both the director and the script by co-star Emma Thompson. This version of the story is careful to emphasise Effie not solely as victim, which could easily have been the case, but also as a resolute woman of agency, whose actions come to lead the film by the final third. Ruskin, meanwhile, is depicted as retiring, odd and under the complete control of his over-protective parents (David Suchet and Julie Waters). The equation works and would seem to have the potential for contemporary relevance, even if the archetypes are broadly drawn; young wife, impotent husband, cuckolded father, shrew-like mother.
The reason why the film ultimately did not engage audiences (it took just £67,000 from 97 screens when it opened, good enough only for 17th place at the UK box office) feels rooted in the subdued nature of the whole film. The only time any spark is shown throughout is when Thompson herself shows up, full of vitriol as the practical forward-thinking adviser to Effie.
Even Thompson though, cannot carry a film with nothing to spark from. Her open relationship with her own husband (James Fox) seems intended to provide odd couple comic relief, to contrast with Wise and Fanning, but rarely does it bear fruit. As oppressed wife, you could argue that Fanning has little option but to play Effie as subdued, but the script invites otherwise and there are times when her performance borders on laconic. Effie regularly seems able to react to things only through stares to the middle distance and even in her burgeoning relationship with John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) there is little passion, giving you little reason to route for them.
When the film moves to Scotland it does finally find at least some visual satisfaction, waking up from the soft focus of the first and second acts, which include an extremely low key trip to Venice. The plot though never does, Laxton choosing to conclude before we have even been given the satisfaction of a semblance of genuine Romance.