A review of the gorgeous but chilly period film “Effie Gray,” written by Emma Thompson. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Emma Thompson won a screenwriting Academy Award for her delightful adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility”; since then, despite the odd rumor (whatever happened to her supposed update on “My Fair Lady”?), her only produced screenplays have been the “Nanny McPhee” movies for children. Now, finally, another Thompson costume drama comes to the screen, this time with characters taken from history. And while it has some lovely moments, “Effie Gray” is a bit underwhelming; it’s odd that an artist so acclaimed for her wit would produce a script so chilly, so dour.
Dakota Fanning plays the title character in “Effie Gray”: a young woman with the pale, soft features of a Pre-Raphaelite heroine, who in the early scenes of the film is engaged to be married to the Victorian art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise). In real life, the age difference between the couple was about a decade; in this film, oddly, it’s about three times that. (You wonder why a younger actor wasn’t cast in the Ruskin role — until you note that Wise, the dashing Willoughby of “Sense and Sensibility,” is Thompson’s real-life husband.) It was a strange, unhappy marriage by all accounts, but the increased age gap here makes it all the creepier. Wise, given little dialogue that would explain why anyone would be drawn to Ruskin, plays him as a pallid, frightened yet controlling man-child; Fanning, on whom the film focuses, is mostly a wide-eyed cipher.
The film, directed by Richard Laxton, plays out as a love triangle that isn’t — Ruskin is a nonparticipant — as Effie becomes drawn to the painter Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Though Thompson herself pops into the film now and again to goose it up (as the warmly supportive Lady Eastlake, a sympathetic ear to Effie), the mood is quiet, slow, shadowy. But the cinematography, by Andrew Dunn, has the rich texture of a great painting; the landscapes — in England, Italy and Scotland — are a pleasure; and there’s something irresistibly calm and lovely in Fanning’s quiet gaze, and in how she resembles the paintings on which the camera affectionately lingers. You want to follow Effie further, past the film’s ending; she’s finally grown up, ready to tell her own story.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Effie Gray,’ with Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Tom Sturridge, David Suchet. Directed by Richard Laxton, from a screenplay by Thompson. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic and sexual content, and some nudity. Sundance Cinemas (21+).