The title not only identifies the central character of “Effie Gray,” but also the pervasive color scheme of the images that director Richard Laxton and cinematographer Andrew Dunn have chosen for their docudrama about the short, unhappy marriage of John Ruskin, the preeminent Victorian art critic, and a younger Scotswoman. With a screenplay penned by Emma Thompson (who also appears in a secondary role, along with many of England’s other most notable character actors), the film uses the tale—which has been dramatized fairly frequently (including in a 1995 opera, “Modern Painters,” by David Lang)—to take a proto-feminist slant, portraying a wife who finally leaves her oppressive, emotionally cruel husband for another man, shattering the social conventions of the day. (You can think of her as a real-life version of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, though the outcome is far less tragic.)
Thompson and Laxton, however, aren’t as interested in the aftermath of an affair that became one of the scandals of the mid-nineteenth century, as they are with the marriage itself, which lasted from 1848 to 1855. They begin with young Euphemia (Dakota Fanning) wedding the famous writer (Greg Wise), a friend of her impoverished family. What appears to be a blissful union soon turns sour, however, when the newlyweds arrive at the dank home that Ruskin shares with his parents James (David Suchet), whose sole purpose in life is in advancing his son’s career, and Margaret (Julie Walters), an all-controlling harridan who insists on continuing to treat John as though he were still a child. Matters are made even worse when Ruskin refuses to sleep with Effie on their first night together, an act that begins six years of cold indifference in which he treats her with barely concealed contempt.
The film continues through the couple’s trip to Venice, during which the writer gives himself entirely to work while she takes the opportunity to enjoy a social whirl in the company of an attractive young Italian named Rafael (Ricardo Scarmarcio)—whose attempt to seduce her Effie violently rejects—and their journey to Scotland, where she falls in love with young Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the pre-Raphaelite whose style Ruskin had championed before the Royal Academy and whom he’s now commissioned to paint his portrait. Effie ultimately returns to London with John, but determined to have her marriage to him annulled on grounds of non-consummation and impotence. The film ends with her leaving the Ruskin home and reconnecting gingerly with Millais, whom she would marry shortly after the case was decided in her favor. (The last forty-plus years of her life, when she endured the burden of being somewhat of a social outcast, are not even hinted at here.)
This is an interesting story, but it’s treated here in a fashion that’s at once timorous and overstated. On the one hand, the source of Ruskin’s abhorrence of his wife—which has of course given rise to much scholarly speculation over the years—isn’t investigated at all; the only explanation that the script implicitly offers is a “mommy dearest” one, in which the manipulative Margaret’s excessive doting on her son resulted in an inability on his part to develop normally. That leads to stentorian performances by Suchet and especially Walters, whose take on Margaret Ruskin is virtually a caricature of the overbearing mother. The mixture of genteel understatement and broad melodrama creates a whiplash effect that may well reflect the misery Effie felt during her years of wedded non-bliss, but unfortunately can lead to a viewer feeling miserable, too.
There is also the issue of age. Wise (in a stern, wooden turn) is made up to look very much as Ruskin did in his portraits—but the portraits are of the much older man. There was a decade of difference in the couple when they were married—she was 19 and he 29—but while Fanning (who gives a restrained, but rather dull performance) is the right age, Wise—who happens to be Thompson’s husband—is clearly in his mid-forties, a fact that affects our perception of the dynamics of the relationship rather strongly. A similar problem exists in a different way in the character of Effie’s younger sister Sophie (Polly Dartford), who seems to age barely at all between 1848 and 1854. That undermines the chronology of the story, suggesting it happens over a far shorter period of time than it actually did. (Sturridge, incidentally, is around the right age, but in this instance brings little to his role.)
Still, while “Effie Gray,” is very slow-moving and fails signally to connect on an emotional level, it has some compensations. Dunn’s lensing, though it favors a distinctly pallid color palette, achieves some properly painterly outdoor images, while achieving a telling sense of claustrophobia in the interior ones. The locations are often beautiful, and James Merifield’s production design, Juliana Overmeer and Paul Ghirardani’s art direction, Sara Wan’s set decoration and Ruth Myers’ costumes are all impressively detailed. And there’s fun in the supporting performances by Thompson (as Lady Eastlake, a relatively free-wheeling noblewoman who supports Effie in her time of need) and James Fox as her husband Charles, president of the Royal Society; Claudia Cardinale as Rafael’s mother; Robbie Coltrane as a straight-talking physician; and Derek Jacobi as Effie’s lawyer. Some of these (Cardinale, Coltrane) barely classify as cameos, while others (Thompson, Fox, Jacobi) delight mostly because they’re so over-the-top.
That makes a difference in this case, because those extravagant turns sporadically bring a jolt of electricity to what’s otherwise a pretty dour, dreary exercise in marital misery among the Victorian art world’s cognoscenti.
The release of the film, incidentally, was held up for a couple of years as a result of charges of plagiarism brought by other writers who’d worked on the Gray-Ruskin story. Now that it’s appeared, it makes you wonder whether it was worth all the legal fracas.