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Why ‘Effie Gray’ Is a Box Office Also-Ran

Why 'Effie Gray' Is a Box Office Also-Ran

As soon as I saw “Effie Gray,” I asked for an interview with the movie’s writer-star, Emma Thompson. Nope. Not doing any interviews. The reason? Two copyright lawsuits waged against the Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Sense and Sensibility”) and actress (“Howard’s End”) prevented her from talking about the film. She won both cases that charged her with plagiarizing other scripts about the same subject, the strange relationship between young Euphemia “Effie” Gray (Dakota Fanning) and her older husband, workaholic art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise, Thompson’s husband). Neglected and unfulfilled, Gray falls in love with Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge).

In the specialty world, it seems, you’re either a winner with a strong festival presence and marketing campaign behind you and possible awards attention ahead, or you’re a small non-entity, a loser. (This story also reminds of the dangers of high-profile players writing about public domain characters without paying off others who have done the same.)

Several things doomed this gorgeously mounted movie, which is smart, well-acted and directed, with a gratifying payoff. In other words, while most women in the oppressive Victorian era had little power to battle the stultifying societal forces arrayed against them, winding up depressed, “hysterical,” or sighing with the “vapors,” Effie Gray stood up for herself and managed to find a way. (Other arthouse dramas that address this subject include David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” and two recent “Madame Bovary” adaptations, not to mention Mike Leigh’s contemporaneous portrait of the same art scene, in which Ruskin is a character.) 

But “Effie Gray” became tainted, damaged goods. Because of the lawsuits, “Burton and Taylor” director Richard Laxton’s British biographical love triangle wound up not playing festivals –where more critics might have championed its virtues. After it opened badly in the UK, stateside rights were acquired by Adopt Films, which lacks marketing resources, and Universal International, not Focus Features. 
I suspect that Dakota Fanning, while technically bankable on the international market (for “Twilight” among other things) was not a draw for the arthouse crowd. She’s a chilly and remote actress, but those qualities work for her in this drama, and she delivers her best, most mature and layered performance. Thompson, who’s superb as the wife of the Royal Academy of Arts president who champions Gray, would have lent the project a much higher profile if she had been able to promote it. Wise, Sturridge and the rest of the cast are excellent. 
So when the movie finally opens two years late to mixed reviews in the UK and US (often criticizing Fanning) and no promotion, yet again, a movie that many women would enjoy is dismissed. It’s dead in the water. Check it out while there’s still time.
Variety called the film:

“a literate, lovingly mounted and exceedingly well-behaved historical biopic that has sidled into British theaters after two years of less polite legal conflicts. Emma Thompson’s first adult-oriented film screenplay since her Oscar-winning work on “Sense and Sensibility” finds a fascinating human subject in the title character — the socially and sexually suppressed wife of leading Victorian art critic John Ruskin — but this admirable, watercolor-delicate tale of individual feminist emancipation never quite blooms into living color, hampered by spotty casting and Richard Laxton’s overly deliberate direction. Lush production values and name players — notably a conscientious Dakota Fanning in the lead — guarantee international exposure, but commercial prospects are as muted as the film itself.”

Slant:

“Though it lacks the high rigor of Mike Leigh’s near-contemporaneous Mr. Turner, the enthralling Effie Gray spins the narrative of one of the Victorian art world’s most mysterious marriages into a study of life lived and life merely examined, a fecund fairy tale in reverse.”

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