Effie Gray Review

The Plot

Inspired by real life historical events, the film delves into the infamous marriage between celebrated Victorian Art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride Euphemia Gray. Exploring the torments of a famously troubled union at a time when women were perhaps more vulnerable to cruel oppression.

The Good

Dakota Fanning is a rare commodity, as a celebrated child actress who has successfully transferred that precocious success into credible mature stardom. The beautiful young actress does fine work as titular heroine Effie Gray, handling a British accent and balancing despair with stoic determination. She thankfully also avoids portraying Effie as either a self-pitying victim or hysterical.

Emma Thompson in addition to providing the film’s screenplay, generously also gifts the film with a charming cameo as a kind hearted matriarch of high society. It’s an indescribable relief to see her character take a sympathetic motherly interest in Effie’s increasingly desperate plight.

As much as the film is an open hearted lament to the historical oppressions of women in Victorian society, it may find some resonance with an audience currently considering how women are still widely objectified, trivialized and controlled by cruel and vindictive forces.

The Bad

Effie Gray delivers such an accurate portrayal of the crushing emotional pressures of a loveless and oppressive marriage that it’s often hard to find any trace of redeeming hope or optimism. Those expecting some kind of achingly romantic period drama will no doubt feel dismayed by the utter lack of romance.

It’s only really bearable to watch people suffer if there’s ultimately a rewarding sense of meaning or purpose.  Unfortunately Effie’s dire circumstances lack the necessary explanation or dramatic significance to justify joining her on that slow and painful journey. Perhaps if the film had taken the time to establish the motivations behind the mismatched couple’s unlikely marriage it would have given some context for the cruelty she subsequently endures.

In the film’s efforts to be subtle it seems to miss out crucial emotional details. It’s simply unclear why Ruskin marries his pretty teenage bride only to immediately begin shunning her physically and emotionally. His apparent disdain is never truly confronted. This was perhaps purposefully intended to preserve a sense of mystery or ambiguity, but feels more confusing and subsequently disinteresting.

Likewise, Tom Sturridge has little opportunity to generate any truly convincing sparks of romance with Effie, as young and comparatively kind painter Everett Millais. Aside from being a clearly superior match to the disdain of her sullen husband, there’s not much to identify the young pair as star crossed lovers.

The Ugly Truth

Effie Gray is a sincerely made period tale that paints a tragically glum picture of the painful frustration of being trapped in a claustrophobic and increasingly hate fuelled marriage. Dakota Fanning and Emma Thompson’s script do their best to ensure Effie is a sympathetic figure, but largely fails to reward supportive audiences with enough joy and understanding.  Only those with an eager appetite for corsets and consternation are likely to be truly satisfied.

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