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Family Movie Review: Effie Gray (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 109 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 14+. The film is about the terrible marriage between Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin and his abused young bride, the titular Effie Gray, so there is a lot of verbal abuse, calling her a “harlot,” “wicked,” and making suggestions about her sexual experience; the suggestion of a man masturbating under bedsheets; an attempted sexual assault; some strange imagery brought on by drug addiction; an inspection of Gray’s privates to check whether she is virgin; and a nude man bathing and walking around in the distance, with his behind visible. Overall, there are a fair amount of mostly vague conversations about sex and its place in a marriage, but only a couple of scenes of actual sexual content and nudity.

‘Effie Gray’ features a solid-enough performance from lead actress Dakota Fanning, but its pacing is ponderous and frustratingly slow. The movie is supposed to be illuminating, but its insights never feel particularly revelatory.

By Roxana Hadadi

Dakota Fanning does a lot of staring as the titular character in “Effie Gray”: she stares outside of rainy windows, she stares at Scottish moors, she stares at the dimly lit walls of her prison-like house, she stares at nothingness. There’s a depression and listlessness to Effie that is caused by the abuse and torture of her marriage, but “Effie Gray” doesn’t really provide any deeper illumination or insight for her or many of its other characters. It’s a quiet film but a plodding one, one that gets mired in its own ponderous pace.

Fanning stars as Gray, who was the wife of the leading Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin. In the late 19th century, Ruskin was well known for his essays on art, architecture, literature, and the environment, and his works were widely read and well regarded. But his marriage to Gray was anything but successful; after being married for six years, their union was annulled because Gray could provide that it was never consummated. The historical record shows that Gray wanted to be a good wife but Ruskin was possibly asexual or possibly a pedophile, attracted to Gray when she was a child but then revolted by her once she was old enough to marry him. That’s about all that’s known … and that’s about all “Effie Gray” depicts.

Is there any additional insight about Ruskin’s motivations for being so abusive toward Gray? Any sense of her personality before they married or her personality after their marriage was annulled, and she married his protégé, the painter Everett Millais? Not really. The film from director Richard Laxton and writer Emma Thompson (who also costars here as one of Gray’s only friends) begins its story the day Ruskin and Gray are wed and ends it the day she leaves him, so the focus is only on the marriage, but the marriage was fantastically terrible because of how much Ruskin ignored and isolated Gray, so the entire film becomes us watching Gray ignored and isolated. It doesn’t make for very compelling viewing, and especially not at the film’s snail’s pace.

“Effie Gray” begins in Scotland, where the poor Euphemia “Effie” (Fanning, of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2”) turns 18 and marries the rich grandson of the lord of the house, the much-older John Ruskin (Greg Wise), who has been entranced with her for years. When she was 12, he wrote her a novel about fairies, and to her parents, he calls Effie his “muse” and himself “the luckiest of mortals.” But when they reach London and his family home, Denmark Hill, his behavior begins to subtly change; in the company of his parents, especially his domineering, cruel mother (Julie Walters, of “Paddington”), he defers to them instead of Effie. It’s his mother who is referred to as Mrs. Ruskin, never his wife. And when she comes to his room that night so they can consummate their marriage, the sight of her naked body inspires in him such disgust and revulsion that he flees the room, leaving her to cry alone, and then ignores her the next day and for practically every day after.

“What shall we do? What do married people do?” Effie asks him desperately, but he is of absolutely no use: “I have as little idea as you,” he says distractedly. But in this insular, gloomy home, the roles are clear: Mrs. Ruskin tends to her flowers, her Bible, and her son; Mr. Ruskin stays out of Mrs. Ruskin’s way; and John works on his books and criticism, hoping to secure notice and attention for his observations and arguments about art. Effie, then, is left with no role at all; because the family is wealthy, she can’t do the things that she expected, as a working-class woman, to do for her husband, like mend his clothes or cook his meals. Instead, everything she does is ripped apart by Mrs. Ruskin, who sneers at her, “You forget who you are.”

So who is Effie? (Thompson’s character, in fact, asks that of her directly: “Who are you when you are not Mrs. John Ruskin?”) As the years pass in her marriage, Effie is someone who is more and more ignored. She and John go to Venice together so he can work on his book and he pawns her off on friends of friends, encouraging her to socialize and make a good impression for them; then, when she does just that, he says of her, “Once she was a virgin and now she is a harlot, addicted to nothing but pleasure and voluptuousness.” When they return back to London and it becomes clear that his mother was poisoning her and drugging her with opium, John ignores a doctor’s advice to consider Effie with “a sharper eye and keener ear,” but does agree to travel with her to Scotland for a change of scenery.

They’re not alone, though—he brings along his protégé, the painter Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), who he has commissioned for a portrait of himself—and his treatment of Effie doesn’t improve, as he continues his abuse and torture. It’s then that Effie begins to imagine a future without him and a future with Millais, but how to escape Ruskin’s clutches? It seems impossible.

For the most part, the cast of “Effie Gray” does a good job, but not much is asked of them. Fanning is required to walk around in an emotionless daze the whole time; she succeeds at showing glimpses of pain and rage beneath a traumatized exterior, but mostly she just stares and stays quiet. Wise is effectively terrible to Effie as Ruskin, but there’s so little of him interacting with other people that you don’t get a sense of what he might have been like otherwise—was he an all-around misogynist? A momma’s boy? A pedophile? His cruelty is overwhelming but it’s mostly inexplicable, as is his impotence, and so there’s a giant question mark for why their catastrophically bad marriage was such a failure. And while Sturridge is a pretty face, that’s all he’s needed for; there’s no real attention given to what draws him and Effie together aside from his shock at how she’s treated by Ruskin.

But what’s the point of “Effie Gray”? Aside from the cast, there are a few other good things here, like the beautiful cinematography when the narrative moves to Scotland and the visual references to famous paintings that reflect Effie’s mood, like her second husband Millais’s famous painting “Ophelia.” But ultimately, the film takes its sweet time without really making a clear argument about anything, even while it flirts with themes about art, religion, feminism, and class strife. Most of all, “Effie Gray” makes us feel its protagonist’s pain, but there’s too much of that and too little of everything else.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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