Effie Gray, the Victorian-era drama written by Emma Thompson and starring Dakota Fanning, purports to dramatize the "scandalous" love triangle between art critic John Ruskin, his teenage bride Effie, and Ruskin's protege, the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. What it does in actuality is dramatize a mirthless and certainly sexless marriage, casting Ruskin as the churlish mama's boy.
If you're into this sort of sullen period piece, it opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
Ruskin and the young Effie arrive at Ruskin's country home after nuptials in Scotland. Though electricity wasn't yet commonplace, the interior lighting — to say nothing of the decorating — echoes the tenor of the household in which Ruskin was raised: dark and oppressive. His cloying parents-cum-benefactors (David Suchet and Julie Walters) still live there and remain obsessed with their son's success. To Effie's dismay, they refuse to let husband and wife begin their life together in the traditional sense. Indeed, the couple are rarely afforded a moment alone. When Ruskin is scribbling away in his baroquely appointed study, the best thing Effie can do to help, she's told, is leave him alone.
This life of neglect and disdain is captured on film with no shortage of Dakota Fanning's fey and forlorn face. She becomes afflicted with an array of minor ailments. Her hair begins to fall out in ratty clumps. After a gondola-centric stint in Venice, she's largely confined to bed or chair, looking about as excited to be alive as mold.
The rakish Millais (Tom Sturridge) is commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Ruskin to paint a portrait of their son. And so the unhappy couple plus Millais trundle north to a rainy Scottish hillside to give Effie some fresh air — doctor's orders! — and let Ruskin pose for his picture while he writes.
And on this highland retreat, even when Ruskin abandons Effie and Millais for a lecture series, there's not one steamy secret rendezvous to be found! Ruskin continues to be the negligent, beastly husband and Millais merely takes note, registering increasing opposition. Effie does spy a naked Millais in the nearby loch, and we perceive a quickening of her pulse, but the "affair" is never consummated.
Emma Thompson writes a screenplay about once per decade. In 1995, it was Sense and Sensibility. In 2005, it was Nanny McPhee. Effie Gray is certainly her most bloodless offering to date; it's rarely more than a portrait of a dismal coupling. It embraces neither the passion of illicit romance nor the dry humor the British favor when they speak of sex. Thompson's Lady Eastlake, the wife of a bigwig in the artist community, is the only character in the film that can be bothered to smile.
Credit is due both to the production designer and the cinematographer, who composed shots which themselves seem to have been inspired by the coloring and postures of early portraits. And as a visual display, Effie Gray succeeds. As a story, though, and as a romance, it's a dud.