Effie Gray can effie off

But I could watch Julie Walters and David Suchet being vile all week

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Effie Gray

12A, Nationwide

Effie Gray, which has been written by Emma Thompson and recounts the doomed marriage of Victorian art critic John Ruskin to his teenage bride (he refused to consummate it), has a blissful cast. It stars Dakota Fanning, Ms Thompson herself, plus Julie Walters, David Suchet, Greg Wise, James Fox, Derek Jacobi and Robbie Coltrane. So it is period drama heaven, in this respect. It’s a cast you could watch all day, whatever, which is handy, as this is probably quite dull otherwise. It is adequate. It does the job. It gets us from A to B. But it feels as if it is missing something crucial, and I don’t just mean a stiffie. It also doesn’t deliver emotionally.

Ruskin (Wise) had known Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray (Fanning) ever since she was a little girl, had wooed her from when she was 12, and married her when she was 19, immediately taking her from her native Scotland to live with his parents (Walters and Suchet) in Denmark Hill. His parents are wonderfully vile, like grotesque Roald Dahl characters before their time. They dote on John, their only son, deem him extraordinarily special, cannot accept a daughter-in-law, and basically tell a bewildered Effie to Effie Off. I could watch Walters and Suchet being wonderfully vile not just all day, but all week, which presents something of a problem: whenever they are not on screen, you long for them to return. Yes, yes, yes, but can we now go back to Denmark Hill? I suspect such roles are a walk in the park for Walters and Suchet, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable.

Poor, poor Effie: Dakota Fanning

Meanwhile, poor Effie. Poor, poor Effie. She wishes only to be a good wife, as dictated by the mores of the day. She wants to care for John, support him in his work, darn his socks, have his children, but is cruelly rejected at every turn. On their wedding night, when she drops her nightgown, he immediately marches from the bedroom, past her naked body, and that is that, for the full five years of their marriage. (The eventual annulment was the talk of Victorian society; a splendidly juicy no-sex scandal.)

Directed by Richard Laxton, Effie Gray is in no great rush. Indeed, the action almost grinds to a halt at certain points — can we now go back to Denmark Hill?; can we? — as the piano valiantly tinkles on. This is probably the nature of the beast but, still, you’d occasionally like to beat it with a broom, while imploring: ‘Get on with it! We’ve got homes to go to!’ The script is intelligent and witty, as you’d expect from Ms Thomson, but rather sparse. Increasingly lonely and melancholic, Ms Fanning must do most of her emoting with her eyes, which are often red-rimmed or welling up or, for special, extra sadness, both. Her sexual frustration explodes only the once, when she lunges for her husband’s penis …in the drawing room! But that was rather out of character, thankfully, as it’s not something anyone would wish to make a habit of. Eventually, though, she finds a confidante in the form of Lady Eastlake (Thompson), wife of the president of the Royal Academy (Fox), and romance in the form of another man. This is Ruskin’s protégé, the painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge, who was not named above, as he is not a prerequisite for period drama heaven, but is welcome all the same.)

The trouble is, the film is as stifled and repressed as the emotions it is attempting to describe, and cannot make a go of the romantic element, which simply refuses to fly. You will want it to fly. You would consider it your reward if it did fly. But it won’t. There is, alas, no sexual chemistry between Effie and Millais. Not a squeak, not a peep, not a whisper. They take a trip to Scotland, with Ruskin; a trip that should be suffused with yearning and longing and the possibility of actual sex (yay!) but instead feels like what it is: a wet week in a cramped cottage in the Highlands. Plus, there is no attempt to read anyone’s character. Why did Effie marry Ruskin? Why did Ruskin marry Effie? Why did he refuse to have sex with her? (Pubic hair looms fantastically large in one of the theories, if you read around.) But here we just don’t understand. And if we don’t understand motivation, what people want, where they are coming from, where they wish to go, how is it possible to care? Or feel anything? The ending is overwrought — Mills & Boonish, even — but there is never any sense that the film has earned it.

So, worth watching for the cast, and the bonnets and cloaks and corsets and all the rest, but it ultimately fails to deliver where it most matters, and I don‘t just mean …yeah, yeah, yeah.

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Show comments
  • TredynasDays

    John Harvey’s novel ‘The Subject of a Portrait’ explores the questions this review suggests go unanswered in a vivid, nuanced way; in this post he discusses what he was trying to do in the light of the forthcoming film –

  • davidshort10

    Deborah Ross is one of my favourite reads in this magazine, but once I read that the ghastly Emma Thompson had written this film, I scrolled down to comments. A rumour was once put about that ET was considered for the part in Basic Instinct taken by Sharon Stone. I’m sure the rumour was postmarked ‘Hampstead’. ET is one of the early people in the UK of which there are so many in cinema and journalism and TV who had a parent in the same business. No wonder British TV, films and newspapers are rubbish.

    • HB

      So you didn’t see the film nor did you read the review. Sounds like a strong vantage point…

      • davidshort10

        You clearly don’t get my point. I know for instance that I will not like a Scary Movie or an Airplane! without sitting through them.

        • HB

          That’s one guess and two more assumptions that can’t be substantiated…

  • Mc

    Sorry to say this but the vast bulk of British films are like this one. It appears that all British film makers are taught the same cinematic dogma, which they then cherish and cling to like a comfort blanket after leaving film school.

  • cambridgeelephant

    The title of this piece about sums it up.

  • mountolive

    “…and I don’t just mean a stiffie.” Bit of a desperate attempt to appear young and hip, Deborah.

  • Youbian

    Just saw it. Perfectly pleasant way to spend an evening

    • Shenandoah

      Only if you’re watching it on a screen.

  • Greyfox

    A film about people not having sex appears to be lacking in the plot department. One could simply buy a copy of ” The Catholic Herald”: it’s cheaper but the plot is just the same.

    • Shenandoah

      As one that has lived the plot, I assure you there is lots of drama! Especially as religion played no part, just human oddness and variation (not gayness, as so many people rush to think. They can imagine people wanting to do bizarre things to one another, but the person wanting to do nothing to no one is utterly outside their comprehension).

      • Greyfox

        Sorry to hear that, Shenandoah. Speaking as one who is also living the plot I find it boring and would not want anyone to watch it.

        • Shenandoah

          Oh, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s beyond boring. Fortunately for us, however, life is full of good things and they are what I give my attention to.

          • Greyfox

            Glad to hear you’re ok.

  • Sebastian Scotney

    I found Paul Cantelon’s music a major irritant

    • Milt Hess

      Just saw the film at the Palm Springs film festival, totally agree. Why anyone thinks loud clanking enhances the viewing experience is beyond me.

  • Shenandoah

    What a missed opportunity. A Stiffie For Effie should have been the title. Never mind: I’ll draw the book in vivid er colours, for those that missed it the first time.