Unless you are a Victorian scholar, a mini crash-course on British Victorian history, culture and sociology would be helpful in order to really appreciate the new film “Effie Gray.” A quick Wikipedia read will do fine. Here’s the setting: In the mid-1800s, industrialization of the workforce meant that most people no longer worked and lived in the same space. For many, the home became dark, silent and lonely — often oppressively so. The rigidity of the social mores was excruciating. Spirit, especially in women, was often destroyed.
This film, in theaters April 3, paints a meticulously detailed and vivid recreation of Victorian England and Scotland, where even the hills of Scotland seem brown and sodden. An unforgettable scene worth the proverbial 1,000 words shows a small horse-drawn wagon carrying one of the characters as it bumps violently over the deep ruts in the road outside a lonely stone house in the Scottish moors, seemingly overwhelmed by the bleakness.
Director Richard Laxton, production designer James Merifield and cinematographer Andrew Dunn create a graphic depiction of the strict morality of a rapidly growing society moving into the industrial age. This is the milieu that inspired the pre-Raphaelite school of painters. John Everett Milais, a key player in this tale, was a member. The shadowed darkness of the city environment (before electricity), the hard life of London, contrasted with the open space of English and Scottish moors, were inspiration to the painters of this group to glorify nature, color and the human form — to return to a style of minute details, vibrant colors and complex compositions. In the film a painting instructor challenges his students to “paint what you see.” Painter Milais argues that pain and ugliness must be displayed as well as beauty. The filmmakers seem to follow this directive.
Emma Thompson skillfully wrote the screenplay for “Effie Gray” and also plays the supporting role of Lady Eastlake, a voice of reason and strength in an unreasonable society. This is not Thompson’s first foray into screenwriting. She won an Oscar for her adapted screenplay of “Sense and Sensibility,” and she also penned “Nanny McPhee” and its encore, “Nanny McPhee Returns.”
Dakota Fanning takes on the difficult role of a tragically suppressed wife whose personality progresses from exuberance to withdrawn sadness because of the dysfunctional ideas of her husband, painter/philosopher John Ruskin. Dakota looks every bit the model for the muse in the paintings of Milais, and her character carries the film despite very little dialogue. It is good to know that the real Effie was later able to escape this painful marriage and to go on become a happy wife and mother of eight children. Also notable are the performances of Tom Sturridge as “John Everett Milais,” Greg Wise as John Ruskin and Julie Walters as Ruskin’s over-possessive mother.
“Effie Gray” is worth seeing for its strikingly detailed representation of Victorian Britain and for bringing to life some little known yet quite influential historical figures.
Rated PG-13. 108 minutes.
Kathryn Whitney Boole was drawn into the entertainment industry as a kid and never left. It has been the backdrop for many awesome adventures with crazy creative people. She now works as a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.