Effie Gray Fails to Rise above Namesake Dullness

EFFIE GRAY  (2014/15)
Directed by Richard Laxton
Sovereign Films, 108 minutes, PG-13 (brief nudity)
* *

Emma Thompson has many talents, but script writing is not one of them. Effie Gray tells the story of spirited Scots lass Euphemia Gray (1828-1897) and her disastrous marriage to English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), one that took place in 1848 and was annulled in 1854. It is such a fascinating tale that it has been the subject of numerous well-received plays and books though, alas, this (rightly) is not among the highly regarded.

Effie is played quite well by Dakota Fanning, though Ruskin (Thompson's husband, Tom Wise) is miscast. Effie Gray begins like a classic case of cradle robbing, with Fanning looking to be about 16 and Ruskin a gray-templed man in his 40s who weds a girl of whom his parents disapproved. This is the first of numerous liberties taken. In truth, the Ruskins and Grays knew each other well, with the latter residing in a home in which Ruskin's grandfather had committed suicide. John Ruskin had literally known Effie since she was a child, but it wasn't quite as creepy as the film suggests–he was just nine years her senior, not decades, and such an age gap was hardly unusual in Victorian times. But it is true enough that Ruskin, though a brilliant intellect, was a distasteful man and likely impotent as well. Legend holds that when Effie disrobed on their wedding night, Ruskin was disgusted to see that she had pubic hair—unlike the Greek statues he admired—and never consummated a marriage that ended five plus years later with Mrs. Ruskin still intact.

The film gets the vibe of Effie's monastic existence right–the feeling of being a virtual prisoner in a life devoid of work, duty, or meaning. When she accompanies John to Venice and is allowed to explore the city, go dancing, and participate in society, the Italian light serves only to magnify her husband's coldness and Effie realizes her need to do something about her circumstances. (Hey, if you can't be romantic in Venice, carnality is off the menu!) Effie lapses into a neurasthenia made worse by the laudanum-laced  "medicine" with which her evil mother-in-law (Julie Walters) plies her and only starts to come back to life when she returns to Scotland with her husband and his protégé, pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). After her annulment, Effie married Millais and bore him eight children before his death in 1896.

Where to begin with the film's problems? Although the vibe is right, it's exceedingly dull to watch a film in which very little happens. Wise's Ruskin is so buttoned-down that he reacts to nothing; hence there are no big scenes and little drama other than that conveyed by Fanning's sad doe eyes. We get lots of nice scenery—Venice, the Scottish Trossachs, English manor houses–but we could get that from Google Images. Don't expect to learn a lot about art either; there's hardly a word about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and only a smattering of paintings filmed from British museum walls and snipped into the film. One is Millais's famed "Ophelia," and it's implied that Effie was its inspiration—and Ophelia's face does bear resemblance to Fanning's—but the model was actually Elizabeth Siddal, not Gray. Also wasted is a superb cast that includes cameos from heavyweights such as Walters, Claudia Cardinale, James Fox, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, and David Suchet. Given the period setting of this film, one could say this is literally a case of a cast all dressed up with nowhere to go. And that's where this film went as well–after Thompson fended off two lawsuits from playwrights alleging copyright infringement, this $11 million film garnered weak reviews, and made just over $368,000 at the box office. That's a bomb by any measure.

Should you download it? It's up to you. Effie Gray isn't terrible, but that's largely because it takes more energy to create camp.  Rob Weir

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