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Film Review: 'Effie Gray'

Andy Vasoyan |
April 5, 2015 | 6:23 p.m. PDT


Claudia Cardinale and Dakota Fanning in "Effie Gray" (Twitter/ @EffieGrayMovie)
Claudia Cardinale and Dakota Fanning in "Effie Gray" (Twitter/ @EffieGrayMovie)
The period drama "Effie Gray" starring Emma Thompson and Dakota Fanning fails to capitalize on its rapturous cinematography and will likely only appeal to existing fans of dresses and decorum.

Written by Thompson and filmed with a care almost bordering on obsession, the film features her in only a small portion of the biopic, despite her top billing. The almost-two-hour-long film relies heavily on the performance of the hardworking Dakota Fanning. Fanning brings a staid discipline to her turn as the eponymous Euphemia “Effie” Gray, the neglected and isolated young wife of up-and-coming English art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise). 

As every Jane Austen novel would profess, the greatest question for a woman of a certain age in such proper society would be marriage, and it would seem that Effie's question is solved the the get-go: the film begins with her arriving at her husband's considerable estate. Mr. Ruskin is cold and awkward from the get-go, but he appears to have his heart in the right place and it seems that Effie might eventually crack his facade. The further the two settle into their marriage, however, the more we realize Ruskin cares infinitely more for art than reality, and as the film inches its way towards its conclusion, the unraveling of the sacred bonds of matrimony and Effie herself seem almost inevitable.

READ MORE: Film Review: 'While We're Young'

Perhaps not coincidentally, what separates Effie from Ruskin is the same thing that separates Effie from Austen. Like Ruskin, cinematographer Andrew Dunn has a painterly eye for spectacular visual art; scenes set in Venice are simultaneously washed-out and lively. Despite no history leading big-screen action films, director Richard Laxton composes an engrossing foot chase that shows subtlety, realism, and directness. Other vistas in a Scottish loch are nothing short of gorgeous, their misty tone and dreary but realistic colors so real that they almost float into the the theater. 

Sadly, that appreciation for the visual is elevated far beyond the rest of the film, which, like Effie herself, struggles to be heard. Fanning's performance is admirable, but she has little room with which to make Effie into a character worth liking, as opposed to simply supporting. On the other end of the spectrum is Thompson, who brings every ounce of her quirky-aunt warmth to the performance, but that leeway makes her turn as woman of some standing Lady Eastlake almost anachronistically plucky, and certainly a tad askew from the otherwise reserved tone of the film. Julia Walters delivers a strong performance as Ruskin's overbearing mother, a woman definitely worth rooting against, but her time on screen is oddly curtailed as the film winds down. That choice is a shame, because the tension between Fanning and Walters is one of the more emotionally charged points of the film. The male cast gets a few good turns in by and by: Tom Sturridge and Riccardo Scamarcio in particular make formidable cases for adultery as Effie's suitors, and Greg Wise's Ruskin is a workable foil to their amorous and lively characteristics. 

Being drawn to these other characters never fails to remind that the movie is called Effie Gray. Laxton fails to fully paint a picture of the woman for whom the film is named, despite his rapt attention to detail in the visual and production aspects, which by themselves might be worth an online rental but most likely not the price of admission. "Effie Gray" gives few reasons to dislike the protagonist, but just as few reasons to form a serious emotional investment in her outcomes. Effie is clearly a caged bird, but at the end, we see very little of the emotional plumage that might make caging her a shame. 

Reach Contributor Andy Vasoyan here



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