Juicy story too subdued in lovely but listless ‘Effie Gray’
The first time Emma Thompson wrote a movie script she won an Oscar for her smart and lively adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. She doesn’t have the good fortune to collaborate with Jane Austen on her new film, Effie Gray, but she does have a fascinating true story to tell in her original screenplay. The real-life Effie Gray was an innocent country girl wed to influential London art critic John Ruskin at age 20, in one of the most bizarro marriages of the era, even by Victorian standards.
It’s a tale rife with thwarted desire, confused sexuality, monstrous in-laws, cruelty, scandal, forbidden love, and Pre-Raphaelite art. And Thompson and director Richard Laxton have assembled a cast of stalwart British thesps to tell it. But as juicy as the story ought to be, the movie just misses the mark dramatically. The acting is generally first-rate, and the film is lovely to look at, but the writing is often flat, as if Thompson were trying so hard not to sensationalize the story that she drained the life out of it instead. In her clever prologue, Thompson sets up the story as if it were a fairy tale about a beautiful young girl (Dakota Fanning, as Effie) who leaves her drafty home in Scotland as bride to a famous and wealthy man (Greg Wise, as John). She’s known him since she was a girl of 12, but, as Effie notes, the first time they have ever been alone together is on the train from Scotland to London. “Her mother and father were kind,” the narrator intones. “But his were wicked.”
And how. Effie soon realizes she’s married the entire Ruskin household, including John’s imperious mother (Julie Walters), who still bathes him, and his father (David Suchet), who prizes his son’s influence as a critic for increasing the value of the paintings he invests in. They stand guard over every precious minute of their son’s day so he has plenty of time to write, and not be distracted by petty matters, like a wife. Effie is ignored by everyone, including John; on their first night together, when she plucks up the nerve to strip off her chemise, a horrified John walks out of the room.
Untouched, unloved, and belittled at every turn, Effie finds an unexpected ally in Lady Eastlake (Thompson, who gives her character all the best lines), wife of the president of the Royal Academy of Art (James Fox). Leaving a social call to the hideous Ruskins, made for Effie’s sake, the Eastlakes compare them to “dragons in a fairy tale.”
As Effie languishes from neglect, the annoyed Ruskins send the couple to Venice, where John palms her off on their Italian hosts while he writes a book on Venetian architecture. Meanwhile, Effie has to fend off the advances of a smitten young Italian count (Riccardo Scamarcio)—but not before she learns where her pleasure center is. When his parents commission a portrait of John from one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters he has championed, John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the young Ruskins and Millais set out together for a fateful sojourn in Scotland.
But despite all this material, the film mostly consists of Effie wandering listlessly about. Fanning has a perfectly Pre-Raphaelite face, but she doesn’t bring much spirit to the part; we’d like to see more flashes of someone worth saving beneath her repressed exterior. Nor is there much effort to understand or explain John Ruskin’s increasingly cold cruelty to his wife, beyond that his entire life and personality have been subjugated to his parents’ agenda. If he has any sexual or personal inclinations of his own, we never see them.
The real-life Gray is famous for bringing a successful divorce proceeding against her husband in an era when such things were simply not done. But this satisfying conclusion to her story is only hinted at in the film, while we see little of her courage and determination in achieving it. (Nor is there any mention at all of her subsequent long and happy marriage to Millais.) It’s still an enjoyable film, in a very handsome package, but we wish there were more resonance to it.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge, and Emma Thompson. Written by Emma Thompson. Directed by Richard Laxton. An Adopt Films release. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes. PHOTO: Dakota Fanning as Effie Gray in Emma Thompson’s real-life tale of Gray’s loveless marriage to the London art critic John Ruskin in 1848.