Everything in Effie Gray is as pretty as a picture – all beautiful landscapes, lingering looks and every now and then you’ll see something that makes you think twice. Based on the true story of a love triangle that scandalised Victorian Britain, Effie Gray stars Dakota Fanning as the eponymous Effie, the 19-year-old bride of famed art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), her ill-fated marriage and her growing love for pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge).
This is Effie’s story through and through, charting her journey from childish, fairy tale beginnings through her disappointing marriage and ultimate move towards independence in whatever way she can take it. Hers is a gradual progression, but what I thought had started out as a slow build towards the affair and the action that would shock a nation, actually turned out to be just a slow film, with plenty of atmosphere but not a whole lot going on otherwise.
As Effie, Fanning is suitably Victorian, being as quiet, demure and obedient as she is, and perhaps this is to her detriment. Here is a woman who is oppressed by her era and gender and who is trapped in a loveless, unconsummated marriage, yet when she meets the love of her life there is little that signals this change and Sturridge’s Millais doesn’t do too much better selling the love triangle of the century.
Of course, the film is introduced as a fairy tale, so maybe a certain element of stereotyping is to be expected. If Effie Gray was set up to be the story of a lonely girl who dreams of more and meets a young, handsome artist-type who rescues her from her life and her wicked in-laws to live happily ever after, then the film nailed it. It also, however, belittles the truly extraordinary story of Effie, the woman who divorced her husband on the grounds of impotency in Victorian England and risked the wrath of society to gain freedom from an unhappy marriage.
Of the supporting characters, Emma Thompson as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake was utterly fantastic and one of the highlights of the film, while the cinematography was absolutely stunning, incorporating open spaces and natural landscapes in ways that would make the Pre-Raphaelites themselves proud. Despite this, the whole film felt like another In Secret, only without Zola’s attempts to explore the psychology behind the emotions that drive us.
To John Ruskin, Effie Gray is little more than another beautiful thing to admire and add to his collection and to John Everett Millais, she is an inspiration, a model and a Pre-Raphaelite muse. To an audience, however, Effie Gray is just under two hours of muted emotions and pretty scenery telling the story of a woman who defied conventions in a very conventional way.
Effie Gray is released on DVD on 23 February 2015.