Effie Gray Fails to Rise above Namesake Dullness

EFFIE GRAY  (2014/15)
Directed by Richard Laxton
Sovereign Films, 108 minutes, PG-13 (brief nudity)
* *

Emma Thompson has many talents, but script writing is not one of them. Effie Gray tells the story of spirited Scots lass Euphemia Gray (1828-1897) and her disastrous marriage to English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), one that took place in 1848 and was annulled in 1854. It is such a fascinating tale that it has been the subject of numerous well-received plays and books though, alas, this (rightly) is not among the highly regarded.

Effie is played quite well by Dakota Fanning, though Ruskin (Thompson's husband, Tom Wise) is miscast. Effie Gray begins like a classic case of cradle robbing, with Fanning looking to be about 16 and Ruskin a gray-templed man in his 40s who weds a girl of whom his parents disapproved. This is the first of numerous liberties taken. In truth, the Ruskins and Grays knew each other well, with the latter residing in a home in which Ruskin's grandfather had committed suicide. John Ruskin had literally known Effie since she was a child, but it wasn't quite as creepy as the film suggests–he was just nine years her senior, not decades, and such an age gap was hardly unusual in Victorian times. But it is true enough that Ruskin, though a brilliant intellect, was a distasteful man and likely impotent as well. Legend holds that when Effie disrobed on their wedding night, Ruskin was disgusted to see that she had pubic hair—unlike the Greek statues he admired—and never consummated a marriage that ended five plus years later with Mrs. Ruskin still intact.

The film gets the vibe of Effie's monastic existence right–the feeling of being a virtual prisoner in a life devoid of work, duty, or meaning. When she accompanies John to Venice and is allowed to explore the city, go dancing, and participate in society, the Italian light serves only to magnify her husband's coldness and Effie realizes her need to do something about her circumstances. (Hey, if you can't be romantic in Venice, carnality is off the menu!) Effie lapses into a neurasthenia made worse by the laudanum-laced  "medicine" with which her evil mother-in-law (Julie Walters) plies her and only starts to come back to life when she returns to Scotland with her husband and his protégé, pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). After her annulment, Effie married Millais and bore him eight children before his death in 1896.

Where to begin with the film's problems? Although the vibe is right, it's exceedingly dull to watch a film in which very little happens. Wise's Ruskin is so buttoned-down that he reacts to nothing; hence there are no big scenes and little drama other than that conveyed by Fanning's sad doe eyes. We get lots of nice scenery—Venice, the Scottish Trossachs, English manor houses–but we could get that from Google Images. Don't expect to learn a lot about art either; there's hardly a word about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and only a smattering of paintings filmed from British museum walls and snipped into the film. One is Millais's famed "Ophelia," and it's implied that Effie was its inspiration—and Ophelia's face does bear resemblance to Fanning's—but the model was actually Elizabeth Siddal, not Gray. Also wasted is a superb cast that includes cameos from heavyweights such as Walters, Claudia Cardinale, James Fox, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, and David Suchet. Given the period setting of this film, one could say this is literally a case of a cast all dressed up with nowhere to go. And that's where this film went as well–after Thompson fended off two lawsuits from playwrights alleging copyright infringement, this $11 million film garnered weak reviews, and made just over $368,000 at the box office. That's a bomb by any measure.

Should you download it? It's up to you. Effie Gray isn't terrible, but that's largely because it takes more energy to create camp.  Rob Weir


Learning to Drive is Formula on Cruise Control

Directed by Isabel Coixet
Lavendar Pictures, 90 minutes, R (brief nudity)
* * *
Learning to Drive is a “small” formula picture. It has its charms, but only if you accept the idea that you’re along, so to speak, for a diverting little journey down familiar byways.

Bourgeois New York literary critic Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) is dealt a shock when her husband Ted (Jake Weber) announces his intent to leave. Ted has philandered many times in the past, but Wendy­—now on the wrong side of 50—must face the truth that he really means it this time, that divorce is likely, and a settlement will probably entail selling her comfy Manhattan home. She’s not in a good psychological space for learning to drive, something she needs to do if she wants to spend quality time with her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer), who is in ensconced in upstate Vermont trying her hand at organic farming.  

Enter Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), a New York cabbie who moonlights as a driving instructor. He’s everything Wendy isn’t: calm, centered, patient, spiritual, and responsible. Darwan ekes out a downsized version of the American Dream. He was a professional in India before the post-pogrom of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination made him a prisoner/refugee. In Queens, though, he’s just another working-class foreigner.

This is a very predictable film with just two surprises, one of which centers on the relationship between Wendy and Darwan. The other is that this is an American, not a British, movie. There are so many East-meets-West themed films in Britain that the de facto genre needs a name. Conventions reign in such films: moronic nativism, cross-cultural misunderstanding, the wisdom of the East, and the revelation that we’re all alike underneath our surface differences. You’ll find all of these in Learning to Drive, plus a few diverting twists: glimpses of Sikh rituals, a few inferred foodways, and the appearance of Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) as Darwan’s family-chosen intended. Don’t expect a crash course in anthropology from any of this—you’d learn more by reading National Geographic photo captions.

There is a definite sense that director Isabel Coixet is padding the story to stretch it a respectable 90 minutes. Many of the film’s subthemes—illegal immigrants, female subcultures, the inability of Americans to tell foreigners apart—are little more than snap-ons devoid of developmental depth. Overall, Learning to Drive is a slight effort that owes whatever success it has to the performances of Clarkson and Kingsley, though I doubt either was overly taxed. Clarkson is physically and emotionally convincing as an urbane but world-weary sophisticate who realizes her head-turning beauty is fading, but knows how to present and flaunt what remains. Kingsley, of course, has the man of honor and hidden wisdom act down pat. There is strong chemistry between the two but, again, it’s probably not the kind you anticipate. If anything, though, the most important statement this film makes is something the script did not intend: both actors would be in much better films were it not for film industry ageism, sexism, and racism.

You need not ponder these things to enjoy Learning to Drive. It is what it is: a fluffy social comedy/drama hybrid. Call it an end-of-the-week-my-brain-is-shot diversion that goes down as easily as a glass of cheap, but satisfying, wine. In each case, we know we’re not dealing with vintage goods.  Rob Weir



J: A Dystopian Marvel from Howard Jacobson

J  (2014)
Howard Jacobson
Crown, 312 pages
* * * *

Howard Jabobson’s chilling dystopian novel J dares ask three questions: Can there be reconciliation without truth? Can there be history without memory? Can either love or hate exist within the other?

Jacobson—who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2010 novel Finkler—takes us to a future Britain that is failing to recover from a cataclysm so vague that it is always referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Britain already has a problem—basic linguistics theory has long held that naming is a necessary precursor to mastery. But before Jacobson probes this, he opens with a parable of a wolf and a spider in which the ravenous lupine falters and the patient arachnid survives. Readers need to be spiders as well, as Jacobson spins a web that emerges slowly before it takes shape. In fact, it’s not immediately clear at first we are in England, as opposed to Germany, Russia, or maybe Wales. And, of course, we're not sure what happened, if it happened. There are rumors of mass killings, but where are the bodies? If it happened, how can the victims have simply disappeared?

Jacobson’s dystopian Britain isn’t one out of Children of Men—it’s more terrifying and more English. After the thing that might not have happened, Britain is dying a death from a thousand paper cuts in a land that doesn’t “ban” things outright; one simply doesn’t do certain things: listen to jazz, travel abroad, read most books, collect fancy furniture, stand out, or think about the past. Especially the latter, which is dissuaded by public campaigns to “let sleeping dogs lie,” think of “memory as useless,” and view the past as an obstacle to thinking “about the future.” Powerful social conventions are (usually) passively enforced by Ofnow, an enforcer branch of government, which occasionally dissuades individuals directly. Mainly, though, society is held in check by an elaborate peer pressure network in which everyone is watching everyone else for any signs of “unusual” behavior, defined mostly as being vaguely unconventional or solitary. It’s as if every citizen is involved in a network that’s like a grassroots mash-up of Stasi and Savak.

Still another oddity: everyone has a Jewish-sounding last name, which we learn was the project of Operation Ishmael after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. The book centers on two individuals who must be suspect because they are unusual: Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons. Kevern lives in Port Rueben, where he carves wooden spoons for the tourist trade—often under the tutelage of a mentor Professor Everett Zermansky, who heads the division of Benign Visual Arts. (It just isn’t done to make distressing expressionist or abstract art.) Kevern is a dour, naïve, and exceedingly cautious man more disposed towards being a hermit than part of a group think society. That suits Kevern fine—he was raised to be invisible by a cheerless mother and a disengaged father whose most notable trait was that he made a sport of placing two fingers in front of his lips before pronouncing any word beginning with the letter “J.” Kevern falls in love with the quirky, perky Ailinn, whose favorite book is Moby Dick. Love serves mainly to raise Kevern’s caution flags higher as he knows it’s unlikely for two “aphids”–a word used by those who think they are above the hoi polloi—to expect happiness. Moreover, why is Ailinn’s former roommate, the mysterious Esme, so invested in wanting the two of them to have a child?

How does one discover the truth of anything in a land where Densdell Kroplick, the village barber, is also the official local historian cranking out pamphlets that are piles of folktales and sanitized stories of artisan crafts? How does one recover the past in a place where memory is only two-generations deep? Is there a future in a land in which moroseness and violence are creeping upward? When Kevern and Ailinn travel to the capital city of Necropolis (London), they encounter a glum, dangerous, and shabby place—but mostly it exudes a gray soullessness that dissolves into a metaphorical obscuring mist that’s as foggy as what happened (and it’s clear something did).

What’s Jacobson on about? A clue comes in the fact that many in Necropolis are wearing keffiyahs. Another is the J word never spoken: Jew. And when a character begins to speak in obvious riddles—“What is a culture but ghosts?” “What’s Ahab without his whale?”­—and insist upon an “equipoise of hate,” an “H” word is suggested: Holocaust. Jacobson has been vocal in his denunciations of how Islamophobia is often invoked to excuse modern-day British anti-Semitism. Is Port Rueben a living museum, an incubator for a better future, a shtetl awaiting a new pogrom, or something sinister?

This is, simply, an amazing work of literature. Jabobson often writes is long, sweeping sentences and uses beautiful words—some of which will send you scurrying to your dictionary. I have seldom read such a chilling and gripping work in which tension is sustained in silences rather than actions, and terror looms most ominously in passivity.
Rob Weir