There’s been some uncertainty over whose story Effie Gray really is. Narratively, this is the story of Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his unhappy teenage bride Euphemia, enshrined in the title. Behind the scenes, though, it’s screenwriter Emma Thompson’s attempt to create a vehicle both for husband Greg Wise (who plays Ruskin) and her brand of no-nonsense, popular feminism. And in the three years since principal photography wrapped, legal disputes have arisen over the source material. We should perhaps be thankful the film has emerged as coherent as it is: a sporadically engaging curio, no more, no less.
One might nevertheless express surprise at the decision to jump past the principals’ courtship to concentrate on their strained domestic life, thereby omitting an obvious first act, and any idea of what Effie (Dakota Fanning) saw in Ruskin beyond a ticket to the big city. For Thompson and the director Richard Laxton, the meat of this tale is the Gothicky, Rebecca-like tale of how this wide-eyed innocent comes to realise she’s been imprisoned for her beauty; that she is, in effect, to be exhibited like the other artworks displayed around the Ruskin family home.
For a while, Thompson’s writing – mixing her usual unflappable assurance with genuine insight – steadies the ship. The opening half-hour engages with a whole history of female representation in art; it sets up the idea that Ruskin might himself be a prisoner to his overbearing mother (Julie Walters, smartly cast); and it cleverly gives Effie a high-society ally in Lady Eastlake (Thompson herself), the author and art historian whose counsel sounds wise enough until she suggests having children as a cure for the couple’s ills. Here is sisterhood clumsily finding its feet.
Thereafter, alas, Effie Gray starts to get resistibly spotty. There is scarce love in the room for this cold and controlling Ruskin, but even so, it seems unfair that the film should undermine him from start (Wise’s dialogue pushed way down in the sound mix, giving him all the introduction of a greying churchmouse) to finish (Millais’ very ordinary study of his patron trumped by the painter’s portrait of Effie posed – for eternity – as Ophelia). It’s one of movieland’s more genteel and higher-minded attacks on the critical profession.
Too often, the film is too discreet for its own good. When the groom flees the bedroom on his wedding night, the cause appears to be a generalised revulsion to his bride’s tastefully presented flesh, not Ruskin’s very specific alarm at Effie’s abundant pubic hair, the likes of which no painting had warned him of. The editorial urge is clear – to get Effie Gray out to the booming matinee crowd – but in doing so valuable truth has been cut around: couldn’t there have been something body-positive about a movie in 2014 that showed an American actress sporting a resplendent, period-appropriate bush?
Instead, nobody is allowed to know what this couple’s problems really are, and the glimpses of other, more sensually fulfilling lives Thompson offers her heroine – with the son of Venetian countess Claudia Cardinale (squandered in this cut), then as secret muse to Millais (Tom Sturridge) – are just that: glimpses, too scant to be as anywhere near as poignant as the film would like and needs them to be. Was there at some point a two-and-a-half hour Effie Gray, one that might have merited comparison to Mike Leigh’s upcoming heavyweight Mr. Turner?
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn (The Madness of King George, Stage Beauty) keeps it modestly handsome, but his collaborators just can’t make the relationships come to life. We’re left looking at a love triangle between a charmless snob, an empty naïf, and – thanks to Sturridge’s oddly stilted performance – some chancer who looks as though he’d be happier lurking by the cigarette machines in a Camden dive bar. All of them are stuck in their own unhappy holes, doomed by history, poor choices and whatever went on in post-production.
(MovieMail, October 2014)
Effie Gray is now available to rent via Prime Video.