Since she first won our hearts as a free spirit with a conscience in Howard’s End in 1992, Emma Thompson has built a career conveying the humanity of proper ladies. Her winning personality, and her classic theatrical training, enable her to play prim on the surface while suggesting the layers that smolder below.

The actress brings the same sensibility to her work as a screenwriter. Her ability to simplify complex stories — effectively demonstrated in her Oscar-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 1995 — enables us to enjoy how characters behave while exploring what’s behind their actions. But she lets us down with her original screenplay for Effie Gray, a new drama about a scandalous love triangle in England in the 1800s. While Thompson creates compelling situations for her characters, she fails to explain what motivates these people to treat each other in less than respectful ways. While the story demands a sharp look at the emotional baggage these characters carry, Thompson chooses to simplify the story to a point of confusion. We’re left with a lovely visual experience that makes little sense when the people begin to talk.

As the film opens, a young lady named Effie marries a haughty art critic named John. Soon after the wedding, however, she learns that he is a lot more complicated than she thought when they return to live in his boyhood home. All of sudden she has nothing to do. His mother manages every detail of his life — beginning with his bath when the couple arrives — and he takes no interest in what marriage involves. All of this makes Effie quite lonely until she meets a young artist named Everett who arrives to paint her husband’s portrait. Their mutual fascination — coupled with her husband’s neglect — sets the stage for the type of triangle that movies love, especially costume dramas set in bygone eras.

The film’s problems begin as soon as the Effie meets the in-laws. While she wants to settle into the routine of married life, John rejects her suggestions at every turn. But Thompson’s screenplay never tells us why. Is this man so self-absorbed that he can’t acknowledge someone else? Or are his parents so overbearing that he can’t be himself in their presence? Does he regret his decision to marry this younger woman? Or is there something else happening in his thoughts that he can’t explain? While John may not know what stops him from connecting with his wife, screenwriter Thompson should have this figured out. And she should let us know why this man loves to be mean to the young woman he chose to be his wife.

Dakota Fanning struggles to bring Effie to life while Greg Wise spends most of his screen time posing as John. As the wise Lady Eastlake, Thompson gives the film its moral center when she asks, “Why would anyone put up with being ignored by someone who is supposed to care?” She delivers the most interesting performance, which could be because screenwriter Thompson gives actress Thompson the best lines. Or it could be that watching romantic tension is more interesting than living it. At least on screen.

While Effie Gray looks good, we learn little about how these characters think. Somewhere inside are fascinating thoughts about obligation, temptation and resignation. But we don’t get to see any of that. Perhaps Thompson the screenwriter pays too much attention to what may be proper on screen to let us see inside some very inappropriate behavior.

Film Nutritional Value

Effie Gray

* Content: Medium. The story of a complex love triangle could have been interesting if screenwriter Emma Thompson had reached beyond the surface behavior to reveal the characters’ intentions.

* Entertainment: Medium. While the film is lovely to look at, and Thompson has a few good scenes as a wise lady, we’re left wanting to know more about the characters than what we learn.

* Message: Low. While the film tries to make us think about the complexities of relationships, Thompson stops short of fully exploring the potential of the content.

* Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to watch Thompson can be worthwhile but she disappoints us this time by failing to explore her characters.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While there’s enough about the film to fill a short discussion, you’ll be talking about other things by the time you get home.

(Effie Gray is rated PG-13 for “thematic and sexual content, and some nudity.” The film runs 108 minutes.)

3 Popcorn Buckets

Behind the Screen

Reel Moments With Emma Thompson

From the moment she first brought her effervescent warmth to the lovely Margaret Schlegel in Howard’s End in 1992, we knew Emma Thompson was a movie keeper. Not since Julie Christie burst onto the screen in Doctor Zhivago almost 30 years before did a British actress so quickly captivate audiences. And we have savored Thompson’s work – as an actress and a screenwriter – all the years since she won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Margaret.

As the heroine in this timeless adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, Thompson conveys the optimism this lady brings to each person she meets. No matter the situation, Margaret sees the positive side, even when that puts her at odds with the people closest to her. But this woman has a backbone. And when her husband – regally played by Anthony Hopkins – tries to convince her to act against her will, the lady proves she always follows her conscience. Thompson convinces us with each expression and inflection that she intends to live a full life even if those around her try to convince her to compromise. Years later, this performance stands as one of the most deceptively layered works an actress has committed to film. Thompson lives the author’s words in every scene.

A year later, Thompson reveals a different side of her talent as the practical housekeeper Miss Kenton in Remains of the Day. Again working opposite Anthony Hopkins – as a repressed butler who gives his life to his work – Thompson seizes upon the lady’s fears of letting herself get close to someone who can’t return her interest. But she never lets her passions get in the way of her work, holding herself in careful reserve lest she reveal what she feels. The actress brilliantly underplays Miss Kenton’s hesitation, carefully letting us know what’s inside without overwhelming the screen with histronics. The result is a subtle, focused performance that suggests more than it reveals. And it confirms Thompson’s ability to celebrate a character’s humanity while protecting a lady’s weaknessses.

That same year, 1993, she delivered a shattering supporting performance as a brilliant lawyer who tries to free a man charged with an IRA bombing. In just one scene, at the climax of the film, Thompson compresses a character’s lifetime into a few minutes to let us know who has the power to change the direction of history. With minimal words in the courtroom, she reveals more about what motivates an attorney to fight injustice than many actors can accomplish with pages of dialogue. The portrayal is another example of how Thompson gets to the core of a character with precision and focus. She is engaging yet brittle, practical yet compassionate.

Perhaps the peak of Thompson’s work in the 1990s comes in her brilliant adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. As a writer – and Oscar winner for Best Screenplay – she expands Austen’s thin prose into a compelling look at the challenges of two sisters who are forced to fight for happiness after their father’s death leaves them with limited financial resources. While Kate Winslet gets the showier scenes, as the more expressive sister, Thompson revels in the simplicity of her reserve, soaking up every moment the lady savors in her search for a soul mate. And she makes what could have been a stuffy romantic chamber piece come alive with the refreshing breath of an actress and writer at the top of her game.

Thompson’s next striking performance comes from a different part of her acting toolchest. In Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors she creates a fascinating portrayal of a politician’s wife in the middle of a heated race for President. Yes, this is the story many believe to be based on the lives of the Clintons with John Travolta chewing a lot of scenery (and eating too much fried food) in a deliberate cariacture of the Southern politician. Thompson’s work is as subtle as Travolta is broad, carefully painting the picture of this woman without hitting us over the head with her theatrical abilities. She brings a moral conscience to a film that, too often, goes too far to show how its intelligence. And she walks away with the picture with a performance that reveals how sly a comedienne she can be, even when speaking with an American accent.

Last year, after playing broad character roles in the Harry Potter and Nanny McPhee films, Thompson reminded us again what a powerful actress she can be with her touching portrayal of author P.L. Travers in Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. She makes us believe in a woman’s hesitation to trust the ”man who makes cartoons” with the layers of her personal story about a magical nanny she names Mary Poppins. As long as the film focuses on Thompson the results are marvelous. But it spends too much time on backstory details in unnecessary flashbacks. Ultimately we feel cheated by not getting more of Thompson’s compelling rendition of a woman who wants to protect what means so much to her life. She is wondrous in the role.

Looking forward, Thompson is slated to play Mrs. Potts in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast in 2017 and continues to work on a screenplay for a remake of the musical My Fair Lady. No matter what she does, she always captures our attention. And, in her new film, Effie Gray, she remains the center of attention, regardless of the size of the role.

And that’s what’s happening at the movies.