Screenwriter Emma Thompson filters all the elegance and melodrama that is Merchant Ivory Productions’ stock and trade through the emotional evocations of environment which defined Andrea Arnolds’ Wuthering Heights (2011) for her version of the oft dramatized marriage of John Ruskin and Euphemia Gray titled Effie Gray (2014). Thompson’s script finds emotional power in its minimalism as she frames these historical events as a portrait of abuse. Director Richard Laxton collaborates beautifully with Thompson’s screenplay, creating images that are heavy in atmosphere and symbolism.
If Effie Gray has a weakness as a film it is that it was released too soon. Effie Gray is a film for the 2020s as it charts cycles of abuse and presents a narrative wherein a woman, rendered ostensibly helpless by society, manages to challenge the status quo and liberate herself. Ironically Thompson’s approach to feminism through the lens of history is far more nuanced and humanistic than any of the multitude of similar films that have been released post-2018.
What Thompson did in her remarkable adaptation Sense & Sensibility (1995) was to tell the story with an emphasis on characters rather than concepts, thus lending Jane Austen’s social commentary an emotional urgency that was wholly contemporary to the nineties. Thompson succeeds with a similar approach in Effie Gray by constructing the plot as a character study through which historical contexts are revealed and concepts are articulated without spoken words. Far more than Sense & Sensibility, Effie Gray is a “visual” film; the feelings, thoughts, and desires of characters are conveyed with looks, gestures and shot compositions.
When filmmakers rely on what isn’t said but rather what is shown then the role of the actor in the film becomes doubly important. Luckily Effie Gray features a rather remarkable cast including Dakota Fanning (Effie Gray), Julia Walters (Margaret Ruskin), David Suchet (J. James Ruskin), Emma Thompson (Lady Eastlake) and her actor husband Greg Wise (John Ruskin). The supporting roles in Effie Gray are filled out with some of the biggest names in European cinema (Claudia Cardinale, Derek Jacobi, James Fox, and the late Robbie Coltrane) which lends the film a certain prestige. Despite all of these big names Effie Gray is an intentionally small film, in terms of its dramatic scope, preferring the intimacy of a film like Maurice (1987) rather than the sprawl of A Room With A View (1985).
When Effie Gray was released the film was given a thorough lashing by critics who seem to have found the film too subtle or too disturbing. But are not the machinations of emotional abuse often subtle and disturbing? Was it not the social norm in Victorian England to cloak emotional truth in social ritual and etiquette? These critics missed the central point of Effie Gray which is that not as much has changed since the mid-nineteenth century as we’d like to pretend it has.