In 1848 Euphemia Gray, a bright and pretty young girl from a family of modest means, left her home in Scotland to marry her era’s equivalent of an art-world rock star, the imposingly erudite critic John Ruskin. Perhaps as early as her wedding night, Effie knew she’d made a mistake: Though no one knows exactly why, the marriage — by all accounts a deeply unhappy one for both parties — was never consummated. And while young Effie was still married to Ruskin, she fell in love with one of the artists he’d championed passionately, the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. After suffering her husband’s neglect for years, in the marital bed and elsewhere, Effie finally sought and won an annulment. She and Millais eventually married, and remained a couple until the end of their days.
Gray’s story is a great subject for a movie. But Effie Gray, directed by Richard Laxton, written by Emma Thompson, and starring the enchantingly doe-eyed Dakota Fanning, sells its subject short. You can feel the good intentions vibrating off the screen, but it’s still a listless affair, one that takes forever to go almost nowhere. The picture struggles so valiantly to be a woman’s empowerment fable that it leaves you wishing for just a little romance.
Part of the problem, maybe, is that the damn thing looks so handsome. The cinematography, by Andrew Dunn, spans bristly Scottish hillscapes and the mossy grandeur of Venetian canals, but it’s so alluring that it feels like a bit of a tease — watching Effie suffer amid so much visual splendor is just no fun. Effie Gray fixates mostly on our poor heroine’s gradual erosion under the dual grindstones of her husband (played by Greg Wise, ably channeling the rather dour-looking Ruskin) and her incontrovertibly evil mother-in-law (a foreboding Julie Walters). When Tom Sturridge’s lackadaisically soulful Millais finally steps in, it’s too little, too late.
That’s a shame, because Fanning’s performance never falters: She can shift from girlish vulnerability to steely grace in the space of a few lines of dialogue. It doesn’t help that the filmmakers are a bit too coy about exploring some of the possible reasons Ruskin rejected his wife. Again, no one knows for sure, and maybe it’s admirable that Effie Gray errs on the side of discretion. But a commonly proffered explanation is that Ruskin, his ideals of female beauty formed by looking at classical statuary, wasn’t expecting to see, and couldn’t bear, the sight of pubic hair. Maybe that’s knee-jerk psychology, but we’ve all heard stories about young men raised on Brazilian-bikini-wax-era porn who are shocked — shocked! — to discover that hair naturally grows down there. As the movie presents him, Ruskin is just an unpleasant, uptight guy, and not anyone for whom you’d feel compassion, or even pity. Thank God Effie gets away — but the movie’s gears grind down long before she can free herself, and us, from her husband’s malevolently indifferent clutches.