‘Effie Gray’ a fascinating slice of Victorian life 

click to enlarge Dakota Fanning does a nice job as the title character in the period piece “Effie Gray.” - COURTESY ADOPT FILMS
  • COURTESY ADOPT FILMS
  • Dakota Fanning does a nice job as the title character in the period piece “Effie Gray.”
“Effie Gray” tells the story of the young Scotswoman who caused a scandal in 1850s British society after she filed for an annulment of her unconsummated marriage to famed critic John Ruskin. While this respectable film sometimes seems as passionless as the repressed people therein, it’s also an absorbing look at Victorian-era life, love and gender disparity, thanks to a smart screenplay and an appealing heroine.

Directed by newcomer Richard Laxton and written by Emma Thompson, the film is a period drama with a prestige-movie look and vibe that suggests Merchant Ivory more than Jane Campion.

It begins with a young Euphemia “Effie” Gray (Dakota Fanning) looking forward to marrying esteemed writer and painter Ruskin (Greg Wise), a family acquaintance who, when she was 12, wrote a fantasy novel for her.

In 1848, when Effie is 19, they wed, but the fairy tale ends after the couple arrive at the London home Ruskin shares with his oppressive, image-conscious parents (Julie Walters, David Suchet).

On their wedding night, Ruskin rejects Effie. And he doesn’t intimately touch her throughout their six-year marriage. Thoughtless and work-obsessed, he also neglects her needs for basic companionship. She becomes chronically ill.

Key developments include a trip to Venice, where Effie experiences what it’s like to feel desired. Later, she develops a chaste but romantic bond with pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Assisted by art patron Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson), Effie takes action to annul her marriage.

The move needs intensity. Laxton, whose background is in British TV, presents suppressed emotion blandly. One wonders what Campion, Terence Davies or Todd Haynes might do with this story of a trapped woman.

Meanwhile, Ruskin’s treatment of Effie comes off as one-dimensional and odious (even though he is less of a caricature than Mike Leigh’s pretentious-prig rendition of him in “Mr. Turner” and the script tries to show him as a victim of Victorian prudishness). Wise, more than twice the age of the 20ish Fanning, is miscast. The real-life Ruskin was less than a decade older than Gray.

And the Gray-Millais love story lacks heat that a chaste but meaningful attraction requires.

Still, as a female-predicament drama containing art, history, romance and nice scenery, “Effie Gray” is intelligent, interesting and engrossing.

Smartly, the filmmakers immerse moviegoers in the Victorian setting and try to re-create the mindset of the time rather than present the characters from a contemporary-feminist view.

And instead of being a potentially tedious suffering heroine, the protagonist is winning. A low-pilot Fanning conveys sadness, spirit and quiet strength. (It also helps that she looks as if she stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting.)

REVIEW

Effie Gray

Three stars

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge, Emma Thompson

Written by: Emma Thompson

Directed by: Richard Laxton

Rated PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

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Anita Katz

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