A famous Victorian scandal gets the once-over in the handsome and restrained costume drama Effie Gray, directed by Richard Laxton from a first original screenplay by Emma Thompson. Greg Wise stars as highly respected 19th-century painter and art critic John Ruskin, who became smitten by and hurriedly married a disadvantaged, much younger woman from Scotland, Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray (Dakota Fanning).
On viewing his lovely and touchingly willing young bride naked on their wedding night, Ruskin finds himself repulsed and can’t bear any physical contact. For the next hour or so of screen time, representing six miserable years of the heroine’s life, he subjects his wife – with the help of his monstrous, overbearing mother, played to the hilt by Julie Walters, and his social-climbing father played by David Suchet – to slights, cruelties and abuse that might make a viewer want to see Ruskin strung up and left for dead. Was he a pedophile? Gay? Asexual? Thompson’s screenplay doesn’t throw out many clues. Ruskin was, however, an indisputably brilliant thinker but he was also a priggish sad sack, despising parties, prattling brilliantly about art and ideals but absolutely unable to be comfortable around fellow humans. No wonder the sleepy-eyed heroine – totally without rights or even options in a patriarchal society – enjoys a scandalous awakening while vacationing in Venice with her callous, clueless spouse. Even less wonder that she finds a bit of solace in the friendship of a wealthy liberal aristocrat (Thompson herself, fun but jarringly miscast) and the affections of Ruskin’s handsome, doe-eyed painting protégé, Jean Millais (Tom Sturridge). But not before she nearly loses her life, sanity and her will to life. The tragic sadness of a Victorian wife and the unraveling of her marriage might be a worthy subject but, as brought to the screen by so reverently and bloodlessly, Effie Gray is a bit of a drag. **½