Dakota Fanning lives a 19thC scandal in ’Effie’
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
WEST WYCOMBE, England (AP) — It was a love triangle that shocked Victorian England — a tale of passion and duty, tradition and freedom seething beneath corsets and waistcoats. Now it’s coming back to life on screen, with a 21st-century behind-the-scenes drama thrown in.
“Effie,” which features 17-year-old Dakota Fanning in one of her first adult roles, tells the story of the disastrous marriage between 19th-century art critic John Ruskin and his young bride Effie Gray. It was a train wreck of a union, a collision of opposites that ended after Effie fell truly, madly, scandalously in love with wild-eyed young artist John Everett Millais.
“It’s the ultimate bad marriage,” said Emma Thompson, the Academy Award winning actress and writer behind “Effie”‘s screenplay.
She said she was drawn to the story by its “archetypal quality.”
“It happens to be a costume drama, but you could be doing a story with this kind of complexity and oddness in any period,” Thompson said on the set of “Effie” at West Wycombe House, an exuberantly ornate 18th-century mansion in the Chiltern Hills northwest of London.
She’s not alone in seeing the story’s potential. Two writers have come forward to accuse Thompson of copying their work, claims she and her producers deny.
Playwright Gregory Murphy alleges similarities with his play and screenplay “The Countess.” He has claimed that “Effie” is “distinctly related to my own screenplay in its timeframe, character development, structure and tone.”
American writer Eve Pomerance maintains the script has passages similar to her own unproduced screenplay, “The Secret Trials of Effie Gray.”
“Effie” producer Donald Rosenfeld accuses Pomerance and Murphy of “fortune hunting,” and has hit back with lawsuits in a U.S. court against both writers, seeking a declaration by a judge that there are no copyright issues involved.
“We’ve never had any contact with these people,” he said. “They did not have anything to do with the movie.”
Thompson happily admits she is not the first writer to tell Effie’s tale. There have been several film, television and stage versions, and Keira Knightley is reportedly in talks to play Effie in another movie, “Untouched.”
“That always happens,” Thompson said, sipping a mug of tea between takes. “It’s a zeitgeist thing. There hadn’t been a Jane Austen movie for 30 years when we started to prep ‘Sense and Sensibility”’ — the 1995 film for which she won a screenwriting Oscar. “Suddenly there were like 14 on the go.”
Ruskin married Gray in 1848, when he was 29 and she was 19. On the couple’s wedding night, something about his bride — historians still debate exactly what — so horrified Ruskin that the union was not consummated. Ruskin maintained it was her personality that had put him off, but Gray later wrote that her husband “had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was.”
“We’re talking about a girl who is objectified, and then disappoints a man by being real,” said director Richard Laxton, a British television veteran making his feature-film directing debut. “If that isn’t relevant, I don’t know what is.”
Divorce was illegal, so Effie suffered for years before falling in love with Millais, a leading member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young painters whose bold style shocked and excited the Victorian art establishment.
Effie sought an annulment, which was granted on the grounds of her husband’s “incurable impotency” — though Thompson thinks Ruskin’s dysfunction was more emotional than erectile. She married Millais and went on to have eight children. But love came at a price. Gray was barred from events attended by Queen Victoria and ostracized by sections of society.
Fanning said that despite Effie’s anguish, it’s not a depressing film.
“It’s about her journey back to becoming a whole self again,” Fanning said.
“She’s such a strong woman — and such a modern woman for the time in which she lived.”
The filmmakers hope the story of a woman trying to escape an oppressive marriage will resonate with modern audiences.
Thompson says her main inspiration for the film was Phyllis Rose’s book “Parallel Lives,” which analyzes five dysfunctional Victorian marriages. Thompson was struck that in each case, the problems appeared “emblematic of emotional disconnection in our country generally, but particularly between the sexes” — a gap modern society has not fully closed.
“In some ways we’ve come a long way — think of dental work,” Thompson said.
“But the communication between the sexes is not good enough, as far as I can see, and needs to be improved. Generally speaking, you look at the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, and you think ‘Never the twain shall meet.”’
Producer Rosenfeld worked on several Merchant Ivory films, and “Effie” strives for the same audience-wooing alchemy of modest budget, smart script, handsome costumes and classy cast. The film’s roster of British thespians includes Thompson as Lady Eastlake, a forward-thinking arts patron who befriended Effie. Thompson’s real-life husband, Greg Wise, plays Ruskin, with Tom Sturridge as Millais and Julie Walters, James Fox, Derek Jacobi and David Suchet in supporting roles.
Despite fears the plagiarism claims might delay production, filming on “Effie” took place this fall in London, Scotland, Venice and at West Wycombe, which stands in for London’s Royal Academy in a key dinner-party scene. Producers hope to premiere the film in May.
Laxton has been working on a snappy modern parallel to describe this twisted Victorian tabloid tale.
“Young girl falls in love with Simon Cowell, goes off to a festival, realizes there is this other band member, then runs back to Simon,” he said. “He takes off to Scotland and locks them in a recording studio and she falls in love with the young lead singer.”
And they live, more or less, happily ever after.