Since proper Victorian society would not tolerate homosexuality or divorce, it was truly scandalous when young Euphemia “Effie” Gray left her husband, influential art critic John Ruskin, after a loveless six-year marriage for Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Teenage Effie’s (Dakota Fanning) story begins in Scotland in 1848, when she marries Ruskin (John Wise). Arriving in London, Effie discovers to her dismay that they’re to live with his prim, domineering parents (Julie Walters, David Suchet). Worse yet, after viewing lovely Effie’s naked body, Ruskin coldly refuses to consummate their marriage. Read om…
At a Royal Academy of Arts dinner, Ruskin supports the new Pre-Raphaelite movement, convincing the President of the Academy, Sir Charles Eastlake (James Fox), to allow young artists, like John Millais (Tom Sturridge), to exhibit there.
That same night, rejected Effie is befriended by Eastlake’s outspoken wife, Elizabeth (Emma Thompson), who recognizes Effie’s naïveté and angst, eventually serving as her confidante.
As time goes by, the Ruskins travel to picturesque Venice, as chaste Effie rebuffs an ardent Italian; then to rain-soaked, rural Scotland, where Millais paints Ruskin’s portrait. That sexually suppressed, still-virginal Effie and sympathetic Millais will wind up together seems inevitable.
(Although it’s not depicted on-screen, Effie and Millais married and had eight children.)
Written by Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”) and directed by Richard Laxton (BBC’s “Burton and Taylor”), it’s a dreary historical costume drama that never probes into repressed Ruskin’s obviously dysfunctional sexuality, except to indicate that he masturbates in their marital bed.
John Wise (Emma Thompson’s real-life husband) is far too old to play Ruskin, who was only nine years older than Effie. Middle-aged Wise is 23 years older than still child-like Dakota Fanning, who adopts an upper-class British accent although Effie reportedly spoke with a Scottish brogue.
Adding to the intrigue, the film’s release was delayed by lawsuits, alleging that the script was plagiarized from earlier dramatizations of the same story; eventually, Thompson won in court.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Effie Gay” is a stultifying 6. It’s far too timid and tasteful for its own good.