For a Victorian-era period drama about a famous historical love triangle that’s promoted with press jargon like “unrequieted passion,” “opulent public life,” and “forbidden realms of Victorian society,” Effie Gray really isn’t what I expected it to be. I thought I’d be getting something a bit more… well, Austenian, I guess. Romance, high drama, confessions of love possibly taking place in the rain. Effie screenwriter Emma Thompson has experience with that, having penned Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and done punch-up work on Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, presumably after he visited her luxe-but-in-an-approachable-way apartment on bended knee with a case of champagne. I have a sense of what I’m getting into. Bring on the corsets.
Effie Gray, though, is less a feel-good romance than a character piece about a woman stuck for years in an abusive marriage, which is… decidedly less feel-good. The woman in question, Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries the famous art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) when she’s 19. Her new in-laws (David Suchet and Julie Walters) are brutally overprotective of their son and resentful of the new addition to their household. John’s no help, burying himself in his work instead of protecting his new bride from his demon parents. Eventually, as Effie grows more and more visibly unhappy, he begins to hate her. Everyone who bothers to look–Ruskin’s protege, the artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge); the noblewoman Lady Eastlake (Thompson), who takes Effie under her wing; Effie’s little sister Sophie (Polly Dartford); a friendly physician (Robbie Coltrane)–can see that Effie is subject to constant emotional and psychological torture at the hands of her new family. John and the elder Ruskins just think Effie’s a self-absorbed golddigger who needs to stop whining.
At that time, there was very little a woman in Effie’s situation could do. Divorce wasn’t allowed. Running away was similarly unfeasible–even if Effie were able to go on the lam, avoid being recaptured by her husband, and somehow earn enough money to live on (and that’s a huge, huge if), such a move would be disastrous for her impoverished family, who rely on Effie’s marriage to the well-off Ruskin family.
Simply put: Effie is screwed.
Eventually (spoiler alert for history), Effie does manage to escape her marriage. Though the means by which that happens–and the love triangle aspect of the story, with Effie and Millais falling for one another under Ruskin’s nose–is almost an afterthought. The focus of the story, instead, is Effie’s evolution as a person: From wide-eyed teenager, to oppressed young adult who seems to sleepwalk through life, to woman who realizes her own strength.
The resulting film is claustrophobic and immensely restrained, making for a perfect marriage of style and substance. There are times when I wish it hadn’t been quite so stiff-upper-lip. I’m not saying go full melodrama, but bypassing potentially entertaining plot points (Where did Effie go at the end of the film? What was the effect of her leaving on John’s personal life and career?) in favor of making Effie Gray’s Life Sucks But She’s a Low-Key Feminist Icon: The Movie did at times take the film over the line from “thoughtful and absorbing” to “sluggish and vaguely frustrating.”
That said, for the most part Effie Gray was firmly in the ” thoughtful and absorbing” category, helped along by excellent performances across the board. As far as characters are concerned, I especially like what Thompson did with Ruskin: Providing him with a depth of character that made his hang-ups and treatment of Effie somewhat understandable while never trying to present him as sympathetic. Seriously, fuck that guy.
Moviegoers expecting the standard trappings of English costume drama will be disappointed. Even so, Effie Gray serves as a worthy addition to the roster of film in general and feminist film in particular.