The period drama is enjoying a new lease of life following the meteoric rise of Downton. However when the results allow hugely talented writers to use the genre as a way of discussing modern ideas you can’t blame studios for investing heavily in the genre. The pinnacle has been Belle, a story about race and what it means to be a woman, tied up in a highly entertaining melodramatic love story. Effie Gray is not as good as Belle, but that doesn’t it make any less impressive.
I did not realise this was a true story, probably because for once in a film like this we didn’t have shameless name dropping, followed by silly jokes about said character. Instead writer Emma Thompson (you may have heard of her) teases out a subtle yet powerful story about emotional torture, sex, and lack of it, as well as the nature of marriage. Dakota Fanning takes the titular role, and plays a young woman who one night whilst trying to consummate her marriage to John Ruskin sees her advances refused. Effie’s desires cannot be met and she falls into a loveless and terrible marriage.
Thompson plays down the love story between her and the other John and it is this that makes Effie Gray seem unique. There are no scenes of frolicking in wheat fields, just wet and windy Scottish country side. Sex and love isn’t presented as something ‘lovely’, it’s a staple part of life like eating and drinking and without it the world is an empty cold place.
Effie Gray is far from a great film; I think it needs a better performance from Fanning who for the most part struggles under the weight of covering up her dodgy accent. Having said that, towards the end the performance starts to make sense. Greg Wise however as Ruskin is brutally good, his whole body and voice are pitch perfect in creating this repressive mess of a man. A final word for Andrew Dunn whose cinematography is as beautiful as some of the paintings the film draws upon.
Effie Gray therefore should be considered another hit for the period drama and for those who stick with it, is rich and engaging cinema. Not all of it fits perfectly together but the power of the visuals and the story stick firmly in the memory.