“Effie Gray” is such a deranged story that it makes sense to frame it as a fairy tale, even though it’s based on real events.
Once upon a time there was a Scottish girl, Effie, who was married off at 19 to John Ruskin, a prominent 19th-century writer and art critic. He moved her into his London home with his wretched parents and proceeded to either berate her or ignore her entirely while — most titillating for Victorian-era gossips — never actually consummating the marriage.
Meanwhile, a knight in shining armor appeared in the guise of painter Everett Millais, creating a love triangle that really got tongues wagging.
For a story that shocked the society of the day, “Effie Gray” is anything but sensational. The movie, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Richard Laxton, is much more interested in demonstrating Effie’s oppressive isolation than anything else. And if remaining low-energy is the goal, the casting of Dakota Fanning as the lead is spot-on. She has a restrained acting style, which works for a story about the restrictive era and its suffocating decorum.
Effie actually falls in love with John (British actor Greg Wise, Thompson’s real-life husband), but red flags start flying almost as soon as they’re married. Once the newlyweds get home, to a house John shares with his parents, his mother escorts him to the bathtub while his father tells Effie: “She’s been waiting to get her hands on him.” (A handsy mother-in-law turns out to be just as creepy as a wicked stepmother.)
And when Effie disrobes that first night, her husband walks away in disgust. More troubling, he has some obsession with the myth of Apollo and Daphne and its message about purity: Daphne would rather turn into a tree than give in to Apollo’s sexual advances.
While the movie excels at portraying alienation, the tactics can seem conspicuous. We see close-ups of the painting “Ophelia” on multiple occasions, the camera zooming in on the details of Hamlet’s neglected paramour just as she’s about to drown. The piece is doubly important in the movie because it was created by Millais (played by Tom Sturridge), the iconoclast artist that John championed — at least until Millais fell for Effie.
The movie has a very methodical pace, which sometimes verges on sluggish. And the soft focus of certain light-filled scenes doesn’t make Effie look angelic so much as it makes the director appear amateurish.
But there is something deeply affecting about this story of a woman trapped in a horrific marriage, with monstrous in-laws to boot. She was the Rapunzel of her day. All of her pain should make the potential for a happily-ever-after all the more thrilling. But it’s not to be. Laxton knows how to get the audience down but hasn’t quite mastered the art of lifting them back up.
(At Glenwood Arts and Tivoli.)
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:48