Effie Gray full movie review - "Effie Gray" is a simple, but engaging story that is well-told... as far as it goes.
When most people think about how far women's rights have progressed in western society over the past century or two, they usually think about voting rights, but that just scratches the surface.
There has also been much progress under many aspects of law, at the workplace? and in the home. I'm talking about the right of a woman to enjoy a happy marriage ? free from physical and emotional abuse, and free to enjoy physical intimacy with her husband. Divorce may not have been illegal, in, say, Victorian England, but it was definitely frowned upon ? even in the instances I just mentioned.
Such was the problem of Euphemia "Effie" Gray. She was a Scottish girl of 19 who married 28-year-old family friend and renowned English art critic John Ruskin in 1848. Ruskin, however, never consummated the marriage and treated her in a manner that she described as "overbearing". After suffering in silence for years, she got support from some influential individuals and succeeded in having her marriage annulled. This meant some degree of social ostracism, but at least she was able to seek out a happy marriage and have a family. Her story has been told in a silent film, a short film, in radio plays, stage plays and an opera, in a short story and in a book, on TV, and now, in the feature-length motion picture "Effie Gray" (PG-13, 1:44).
Dakota Fanning plays the title character in the film, written by (and co-starring) Emma Thompson, who has previously won an Oscar for acting and another for screen writing. Fanning plays Effie as full of youthful optimism when we see her leaving rural Scotland for her wedding to John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and her new life in the big city of London. The reality of her situation quickly sets in. Her in-laws don't think Effie is good enough for their son and are afraid that she's in it for the family money and the prestige of being married to a famous art critic. Effie has trouble adjusting to her new role, speaking up when she's expected to be quiet, and humbly trying to help when she is told it is not her place. She's basically expected to be seen and not heard. Effie is not okay with that, but she might have been able to live with it if her husband showed her some respect, or even a little affection.
Effie's marriage was in trouble from the very beginning. We see a discretely filmed and heartbreaking scene on Effie's wedding night when Ruskin barely looks at his wife and even leaves his bedroom when she comes to him in girlish innocence and vulnerability. For reasons that are speculated on in the film and by historians to this day, Ruskin never consummates the marriage. This leaves Effie feeling lonely and unwanted, feelings that are compounded when Ruskin treats their contrasting personalities as a problem caused by Effie. The couple drifts apart further during an extended stay in Venice where Ruskin spends his time writing and Effie spends her time socializing and site seeing. We see her slowly sink into depression and even become physically ill. The couple travels to her native Scotland for her health and are joined by up-and-coming painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), who is there to paint Ruskin's portrait. Living in the same cottage as the couple, Millais sees first-hand what Effie is dealing with and encourages her to leave her husband. When she finally opens up to a concerned society woman, Lady Eastlake (Thompson), she receives the help she needs, but it's not that simple. Effie has some tough decisions to make and a tough road ahead including the prospect of being a social pariah for the rest of her life, with no guarantee that her freedom will actually make her life better.
"Effie Gray" is a simple, but engaging story. It deepens the understanding of what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century and shows us how far women have come in western society. Some audience members may wish the film showed more of Effie's story, but, contrary to the film's title, Thompson's script isn't as much a biopic as a portrait of one young woman's struggle for her right to be happy. Making a movie with such a narrow focus allows for a certain depth in the plot and the freedom to explore a very small number of issues, but also slows the pace at which the story develops. Thompson has every right to choose to tell Effie's story in this way, as I have the right to feel disappointed at not seeing the dramatic moments of Effie's story that occurred after the movie's script runs out. The film is beautifully shot, nicely-acted and well-written, even if it feels incomplete. "B"