Thursday, April 2, 2015

EFFIE GRAY: Emma Thompson/Richard Laxton's quiet, careful look at Victorian mores and morals

The question "What's a young girl to do?" has seldom taken on a more haunting, depressive scenario than the one observed in EFFIE GRAY, the new film written by Emma Thompson (who also has a plum role here) and directed by Richard Laxton. The poster at right looks all sunny and bucolic. Don't be fooled: This is one dank, dark film with only an occasional bit of brightness to help us weather Effie's personal and continuing storm. Extremely feminist in its quiet, close-to-the-vest manner, the movie should have you, like poor Effie, eventually ready to climb the walls.

The movie is based on real-life characters and real-life events that have, as we learn while the end credits roll, been tweaked quite a bit to fit the scenario created by Ms Thompson that shows us the life that might have happened to young Effie (played with a pretty good accent and a fine dose of repressed feeling by Dakota Fanning), above and on poster, top left) after she married the prominent art critic, artist, "thinker," and philanthropist John Ruskin when she was around 18 years of age. It ain't pretty. Or kindly. Or in any manner just.

Yet, given the Victorian times in which this tale takes place, believability is not the problem. Nor is the character of the man -- played in equally repressed fashion, which then turns to shock and finally anger, by Greg Wise (at right) -- who took Effie as his wife. Ruskin, as portrayed here, is one of the supreme, if initially unintentional male chauvinist villains of all time -- moviewise, at least. Why could he not, would he not, consum-mate his marriage? Of course, we first imagine perhaps he was homo-sexual. But the movie does not give us much evidence of this.

Instead, Ruskin, as seen here, was indeed a "mamma's boy," and with a mama like the one played by a rip-roaring (but of course in Victorian subdued fashion) Julie Walters, above left (along with David Suchet, center, as Ruskin's dad), we quickly note this man's utter inability to get out from under his controlling parents.

Enter (eventually) a young artist named Everett Millais (the properly anguished Tom Sturridge, above), who becomes a kind of quiet champion of Effie, as well as her friend and -- we hope, in time -- something more. But all this takes place in an era in which women were kept down by convention and not least by their very own Queen Victoria, a champion of the "morality" of the time -- or so that is what the world knew of her via public reputation.

Screenwriter Thompson and director Laxton (shown at left) keep all this at just a simmer throughout, with the bubbles slowly growing larger until that boiling point is reached. Whether or not audiences -- even the arthouse crowd -- will have the patience to take this journey of very slow under-standing and growth is problematic. The film held my interest throughout, due to some excellent acting and occasional respites from the doom and gloom. A couple of these are provided by Ms Thompson (below, left) and James Fox (below, center) playing a long- married pair, Elizabeth and Charles Eastlake, who, as shown here at least, came to have an effect of young Effie.

Another source of brightness and pleasure (for awhile, anyway), is the trip to Italy taken by the Ruskins, on which Effie is introduced to an Italian Viscountess (Claudia Cardinale, below, left) and her son (Italian heart-throb Riccardo Scamarcio, below, right) and she and we get to spend some time viewing the wonder and glory of Venice.

Visually, the movie stays true to its theme of repression. Inside or out it is usually dark, dank and gloomy, with the occasional shard of light all the more impressive. The light, in fact, comes to represent some kind of freedom and/or escape.

When and how this arrives is fraught with hope and worry, and provides the film's most suspenseful moments. Even then, at the finale, the bow that our girl must make to Victorian convention remains unsettling and constricting. We know from historical record that the bare outline of events shown here did happen. But what became of Effie Gray? The movie ends in media res, but you can find much of the answer here. And while I sincerely doubt that any sequel is in the works, were one to appear, I'd certainly see it.

The movie -- from Adopt Films and running 108 minutes -- opens this Friday in an unusually wide limited release across much of the country (in 24 of our 50 states). Click here then click on View Theaters and Showtimes to see all scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed. 

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