Title: Effie Gray
Director: Richard Laxton
Major Players: Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge
Out Of Five: 2.5
Art fans must have been in their element last October. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner was released at the end of the month but just a few weeks beforehand came Effie Gray, set during the same period and even featuring some of the same characters. It also comes out on DVD first, released this coming Monday.
The Effie (Dakota Fanning) of the title – Euphemia in full – marries Victorian art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), who she has known since her early teens. She’s considerably younger and adores him but his lack of physical interest in her brings her close to a breakdown. After five years of sterile marriage, she defies society, leaves him and causes even more scandal by suing for annulment on the grounds of non-consummation.
Eventually, in real life, Effie married Ruskin’s protégé, the artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) and they had eight children. Not that we’re ever told that, because this is a film that assumes a certain amount of knowledge on our part. So we’re expected to know that, despite what the film implies, Effie actually wasn’t the model for the famous Ophelia painting that keeps cropping up, and that Millais was the artist behind it.
To get her annulment, Effie had to undergo the humiliation and indignity of a virginity test, one that despite the attraction between her and Millais, she passes. And the doctor who carries it out sums up the reaction of anybody watching when, shaking his head, he declares that Ruskin “must be mad.”
Or perhaps he’s telling us how we should react, because the film comes across as a lecture on the shortcomings of Victorian society. And the responsibility for this lies very much at the feet of Emma Thompson, who both wrote the screenplay and stars as Effie’s confidante, Lady Eastlake. Despite only appearing in a few scenes, she’s essentially the film’s narrator and the voice of modernity, dictating how we should feel about Effie’s situation – as if we didn’t know. It’s a character devoid of any subtlety and written with a heavy hand, like most of the script. Much as I hate to say it, Thompson compounds the felony by over-cooking the part, so that we’re watching something closer to a caricature.
She’s not the only one. The cast is peppered with British acting royalty – James Fox, David Suchet and Derek Jacobi among them – but it’s Julie Walters who follows Thompson’s lead as Ruskin’s over-protective mother, a performance that’s perilously close to Mrs Overall in a Victorian frock. As Ruskin, all Greg Wise has to do is be cool, distant and unsmiling and, while she looks like she’s stepped straight out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, Dakota Fanning’s Effie is beautiful but too saintly.
While the film is billed as looking into the mysterious relationship between Ruskin and his wife, it’s a mystery that’s never solved. The wedding night is a disaster, with Effie disrobing in front of her husband and him walking out of the room without so much as touching her. As we discover, he’s not without sexual feelings but his abstinence is never explained, only hinted at. And he’s certainly not the Ruskin that we see in Leigh’s Mr Turner, where he’s portrayed as effeminate and a source of amusement and mockery. Here the artists he espouses take him seriously, treating him with something closer to reverence.
Visually, the film attempts to reproduce the style of Millais himself, especially during the sequences in the Scottish Highlands. The overall palette is muted – greens, greys, browns – with all the interiors in subdued candlelight, well before TV’s Wolf Hall. What sunshine there is comes as a shock to the eyes.
Perhaps the film could have done with a few more jolts like that. While it’s clearly well intentioned in highlighting Effie’s plight – and is possibly even trying to draw parallels with forced marriages – it ends up being ponderous and preachy. A work of art it, sadly, isn’t.
Effie Gray is released on DVD on Monday, 23 February.