Based on the lives of Victorian art critic and famous social thinker John Ruskin, his teenage wife and the protégé she fell in love with, Effie Gray is a dark little film about a young woman stuck in a loveless union who turns the tables on her cold, withdrawn husband. The dark part is quite literal: This period piece, directed by Richard Laxton, is shot in such a grim and grainy fashion you long to turn on the lights — which is fitting, because you also wish the filmmakers had illuminated the characters a bit more clearly.
American audiences may be unfamiliar with this British love triangle, in which Effie Gray, Ruskin’s spouse, famously petitioned for annulment on the basis on nonconsummation, won her case and subsequently married the painter John Edward Millais. After watching the film, they may find themselves still wondering what happened. The marriage has been debated for decades, and Effie Gray gets no closer to the emotional truth of what transpired.
With a screenplay written by Emma Thompson, who also co-stars as a concerned matron who acts as a sounding board for Effie, the film stars Dakota Fanning, who is asked to convey a lot using very little and wins you over with a quiet but nuanced performance. She plays Effie as an earnest, intelligent young woman who grew up admiring Ruskin, a friend of the family. She happily marries him, but when she presents herself to him on their wedding night, he takes one look and flees. This is Laxton’s idea of subtlety: One of the persistent, unsavory rumors about Ruskin’s reaction to his young bride was that he was put off by pubic hair, having spent so much time gazing at sleek marble statues. Many scholars scoff at this idea as a crude joke, but Effie Gray offers it up as a possibility.
Effie’s life goes downhill from the rejection (that muted, muddy atmosphere Laxton creates is meant to mimic her despair, so deep it’s causing her hair to fall out). She’s bullied by her vicious mother-in-law (Julie Walters), and with her dreams of having children dashed she has nothing to do but wander around the dreary house (in one grim scene she tears one of Ruskin’s shirts so she can repair it just to have something to do). A trip to Venice offers Effie the chance to flirt with a handsome Italian, but she won’t compromise her virtue. The movie would have been much more interesting if she had.
Then Ruskin (played by Greg Wise, Thompson’s husband, as the world’s worst mama’s boy) drags her along on a trip to Scotland with the artist Millais (Tom Sturridge), who has been commissioned to paint the critic’s portrait. Almost nothing happens between Millais and Effie, but what arises is enough to set her on a course to escape her marriage.
Effie’s tale is undeniably intriguing; she’s a feminist hero in waiting, a woman who dared to take matters into her own hands to secure her happiness. But the movie underplays its hand: The bond growing between Millais and Effie is virtually undetectable, so there’s no romantic payoff. There’s also a casting misstep: Ruskin was 29 when he married Effie, but Wise is almost 49, an age difference that makes the marriage creepier than it needs to be.
The biggest problem, though, is the slight attention paid to Effie’s emancipation, the crux of the story, which happens almost as an afterthought. You want to admire this film, and sometimes you will, but it ultimately feels like a finger shaken at those restrictive Victorian morals. There are many good intentions here, just not a terribly good movie.
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Emma Thompson, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge, Julie Walters, Derek Jacobi, David Suchet.
Director: Richard Laxton.
Screenwriter: Emma Thompson.
An Adopt Films release. Running time: 108 minutes. Thematic and sexual content, and some nudity. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura; in Broward: Sunrise, Sawgrass; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Shadowood.