Who would have thunk that John Ruskin, the English critic who wielded enormous influence in 19th-century art circles, would figure prominently in two new movies?
In Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, released early this year, Ruskin is a lisping arbiter of what's good and what's not, and his championing of "the painter of light," J.M.W. Turner, was pivotal in the artist's career.
In Effie Gray, Ruskin - played by Greg Wise without the lisp, but with great pomposity - is front and center. He is a distinguished writer and brooder, retreating to the study in the home where he lives with his parents (Julie Walters, David Suchet) to work on books about art and architecture, to summon up poetry, and to stroke his mutton chops with a pensive air.
Into this world steps Euphemia "Effie" Gray (Dakota Fanning), a sunny Scottish lass whom Ruskin has known since she was a child. In 1848, they get married - he more than a decade older, she keen to enjoy what she imagines will be a life of soirees and salons, hobbing and nobbing. Instead, in the hushed dark of the newlyweds' bedroom, she offers herself to him, and he turns away, his face aghast.
The sex never gets any better. Never mind Fifty Shades of Grey - how about no shades?
Like Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, in which another English couple struggle profoundly with sexual inhibition, inadequacy, and awkwardness, the marriage between John and Effie was hobbled from the get-go. Was he gay? Was it Victorian uptightness taken to the nth degree? Or was it those parents of his, shuffling outside the door - especially Ruskin's mother, who doted on her boy like he was, well, a boy?
Effie, understandably, is confounded by this turn of events, and by the chilly remove of her married life. A society dame, Lady Eastlake, befriends the young Mrs. Ruskin. Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay) is the lady, and thank goodness for her warm presence. Thank her, too, for Effie Gray's piercing, perceptive screenplay.
Thompson's script has been directed by Richard Laxton as if it were a dark fairy tale, which perhaps it is. The prince, in such case, would be John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the pre-Rapahaelite painter who has been commissioned to do Ruskin's portrait. Off the three of them go to the far countryside, where Ruskin poses by a waterfall, and where Everett casts looks of concern and longing in Effie's direction.
Effie Gray is peculiarly compelling, even if the issue of sexual repression, all the Victorian manners, seem light-years gone and close to unfathomable.
Fanning, like her sister Elle in Ginger & Rosa, shows no difficulty whatsoever with the British accent, or with the comportment and costumes required for the day. Her big eyes are full of woe and wistfulness, and you just wish she would slap Ruskin around a bit.
He certainly deserves it.
Effie Gray *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Richard Laxton. With Dakota Fanning, Greg Wise,
Tom Sturridge, Emma Thompson. Distributed
by Adopt Films.
Running time: 1 hour,
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.