Historical dramas based on real-life events often provide for some of the more riveting bits of movie storytelling. Since the tale is true and it actually happened, this makes the audience feel as though what they’re watching on screen is honest and believable because it is. Effie Gray is just this type of film and while the dark premise is unpleasant at times, it is actually quite gripping. Child actress-turned young leading lady Dakota Fanning anchors the film exceptionally well and at just 21 years of age, she has taken Effie Gray and truly made it her own. One simply can’t take their eyes off of her because she is just that good and her performance definitely deserves a few award nominations come later this year.
Taking place in the mid-1800s, Effie Gray focuses on the titular character played brilliantly by Dakota Fanning. Euphemia (“Effie”) has just married stuffy art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and at first, things seem bright and optimistic but soon, things pretty much go downhill, starting when Effie and John move into John’s materialistic parents’ (Julie Walters and David Suchet) house. There, John focuses exclusively on his work, totally neglecting Effie and leaving her to quickly unravel emotionally. Thankfully however, she meets Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson), who is sympathetic to Effie’s deteriorating mental state and two form a sort of bond which is rather sweet. The same goes for artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), whose budding romance with Effie serves as some additional much needed rescue.
Effie Gray is a solid film with a bleak premise that one must weed through to get to some positive moments. Everything about the movie is authentic and true down to the last detail. The costumes and sets are spot on and perfect for the setting. One can really feel as though they in England circa the 1800s. As mentioned above, Fanning is fantastic and her tortured soul is apparent throughout much of the film. Julie Walters also leaves an everlasting impression as the wicked mother-in-law desperate to climb the social ladder. We get a refreshing performance from Emma Thompson, who understands Effie’s pain and wants to help her. Thompson also wrote the film’s screenplay, which actually got tied up in some legal trouble. Apparently there was a plagiarism claim but the court ruled in favor of Thompson.
The great thing about Effie Gray is that while it is based on a rather heavy and at times, intense period of English history, there are glimmers of hope peppered throughout. Effie was a strong woman whose strength came about through an unfortunate time. John Ruskin and his parents treated her like dirt but through this mistreatment, came a powerful modern female. Effie Gray has feminist overtones but its core message and primary theme is that when things seem like they’re at their worst, it takes a brave person to acknowledge it and break through it. All of the elements in Effie Gray are in place to make it a fine film. The sets, costumes, script and direction all fit perfectly as well as a stellar cast led by the sublime Ms. Fanning.