Emma Thompson in Effie Gray.
Emma Thompson in Effie Gray.
Effie Gray opens after the wedding of its eponymous protagonist (Dakota Fanning) and John Ruskin (Greg Wise) but its not long before you sense that their marriage is headed for trouble. As the two are traveling by train from Effie's Scottish hometown to John's home in London, Effie remarks that "this is the first time we've ever been entirely alone." The 19th-century England setting precludes a quick cabin consummation, but the fear that enters John's eyes at the mention of intimacy is unmistakable and, even accounting for Victorian morality, worrisome.
One thing to get out of the way first: Ruskin was a real-life art critic, Effie his real-life wife, and John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the painter with whom Effie later falls in love, a real-life artist. Effie Gray is based on a true story, but refreshingly it never says so. Whatever importance the film attaches to respecting the historical record is dispensed with by the credits, which state that Emma Thompson wrote the original screenplay. That, hopefully, will ward off any articles titled "What Effie Gray gets wrong about being married to an emotionally stifled art critic in the 19th century."
John's repression, hinted at by his behavior on the train, becomes confirmed once he and Effie arrive at Denmark Hill, where John lives with his overbearing parents. John's mother (Julie Walters) pampers John and blocks Effie's most basic attempts to take care of him. Not that John is too eager for a change. When Effie undresses in front of him, he runs off and refuses to consider sex then or at any point later in the movie.
Ignored by her husband and disdained by his family, Effie attempts to assert her independence anyway, particularly on a trip to Venice where John locks himself up to work on a book while Effie goes out on the town. But eventually, John's neglect combined with her perceived duty to their marriage leads her to illness and resignation.
Fanning's physical transformation in that process—her posture crumples, her eyes become downcast, her visage pale and drained of emotion—is remarkable, not least because she and director Richard Laxton let it stand front and center. The film's most moving moments are largely silent, punctuated by John's disregard and Effie's growing apathy.
John, however, never grows beyond caricature (though it's a much different caricature than that found in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, where Ruskin, a champion of J.M.W Turner's paintings, is largely used for comic relief and mocked for his ponderous speechifying). The reasons for his rejection of Effie, and even for his marriage to her, are kept opaque.
Effie Gray, like many movies fixated too strongly on one character's development, suffers from a discrepancy between the attention paid to Effie's experience and the relatively meager portrayal of the characters and society around her. That difference becomes particularly noticeable in the film's ending, which rushes to a quick, neat, and unsatisfying resolution. Effie's cruel treatment and suffering are acutely observed throughout, but Effie Gray's final moments require a broader vision that's largely lacking up to that point.
Of course, there's good reason to praise Laxton and Thompson's singular focus as well. Apart from writing the script, Thompson also plays Lady Eastlake, whose husband is the president of the Royal Academy and who, as a woman who has seemingly overcome many of the restrictions that came with being female in the 19th century, becomes Effie's confidante. When Effie calls out a question at an Academy dinner early in the film, Lady Eastlake commends her. "A ghastly collection of self-celebratory males," she says, describing the Academy. "It was such a relief to hear an intelligent female voice."
That line works well as a mission statement for the film, and Thompson largely succeeds at giving Effie a voice, much as Fanning succeeds at beautifully bringing it to life. But the world around Effie remains crudely drawn, and in that respect the film can only do so much justice to her story.