What It’s About
For a movie about a scandalous love triangle in the Victorian-era art world, “Effie Gray” lacks color. It is the film equivalent of a still life painting, hurt by miscasting and dull direction.
In 1848, an age of repressed sexuality and gender politics, an innocent Scottish 19-year-old Euphemia “Effie” Gray (Dakota Fanning) marries older English art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), an insufferable prig who will not touch her for six unhappy years.
This unfortunate relationship led to a landmark annulment court case that shocked polite society.
Empowered by an independent-thinking art patron Elizabeth Eastlake (Emma Thompson), Effie moves into action after debilitating mental cruelty and physical ailments brought on by neglect and indifference. She falls in love with visiting artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), who is appalled by Ruskin’s cruel treatment of her.
The absence of any romantic heat hurts. Just because the melodramatic story is set in an uptight period does not mean it should be inert. After all, “The Age of Innocence” showed that sparks could fly.
Misery permeates the entire movie, even making the gorgeous landscapes of the Highlands and Venice dreary.
Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay, the first adult script since she won an Oscar for adapting “Sense and Sensibility” 20 years ago. With its soap opera elements and good points about double standards, this true story deserved better treatment, but director Richard Laxton (“Burton and Taylor”) failed to breathe life into it.
Dakota Fanning (Jane in the “Twilight” movies) is too much of a blank slate, and wooden in her first title role. You do feel Effie’s pain, as the marriage is akin to a prison sentence. But as she becomes lonelier and more wan, Fanning is absolutely colorless.
Despite his glowing professional reputation, Ruskin is cold and distant with his wife. He’s a mama’s boy controlled by his domineering parents. Julie Walters (“Educating Rita”) chews up the scenery as an awful, overbearing mother. Wise is one note, never giving us a reason to care.
Thompson’s passion project drew an accomplished cast of Brits, but it’s misleading to think she is a major character. Ruth Myers’ costumes are impressive.
Sturridge fares the best as the horrified painter, smitten and dutiful, and there are memorable turns by Russell Tovey as a servant and Robbie Coltrane as a disgusted doctor.
What Doesn’t Work
Despite some pretty pictures, the glacial pace hampers engagement. We do not learn anything about how this unlikely union came about, nor do we get the happily-ever-after postscript.
The real love story of Effie and Millais is interesting, and merely alluded to here. The pair were married for 41 years, until the artist’s death in 1896. (Effie died a year later.) They had eight children. Ruskin never remarried.
In real life, Ruskin was only 10 years older than Effie, but in the movie, Wise, Thompson’s real-life husband, is 28 years’ older than Fanning.