Effie Gray Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of ‘Gray’ ?

While there may be a never ending procession of movies in theaters about artists throughout history having to suffer for their art, rarely are there sightings of the women in their lives made to suffer too. Often at the hands of highly creative but beastly mates, when it comes to the treatment of their female significant others.

Not that this reality is in any way a relic of the past. Men who are artistically inclined seem to be given a pass when it comes to the treatment of females. And most notably today in the ho hum attitude towards dubious distinguished dabblers in the arts like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

Of course the opposing argument can be made that art should be separated from personality, however repulsive – or the dastardly deeds of its creators. But an ironic spotlight on the women they’ve abused historically while being showered with nonjudgmental accolades, might be welcome for a change as well, in movies.

And such could not be more the case than the splendid, lyrically and gracefully crafted and visually sumptuous as art in its own right, period biopic Effie Gray. Written by, co-starring and conceived with uncommon female sensibility by esteemed actress Emma Thompson, Effie Gray exquisitely places front and center this Victorian era woman (played by Dakota Fanning) who endured in emotionally imprisoned, sexless slave marital bondage, a union with the eminently talented but odious John Ruskin. In other words, a different Dakota’s Fifty Shades Of ‘Gray’?

Ruskin, played with supremely insufferable disdain by Greg Wise, was the leading 19th century English art critic and a prominent painter. He married Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray, a provincial young Scottish woman and the child of a family friend residing in a former Ruskin residence. And oddly or rather perversely enough, herself born in the very room where Ruskin’s grandfather committed suicide.

But Effie’s giddy romantic notions soon turn to perpetual gloom, when Ruskin is filled with disgust on their wedding night by her exposed female body for the first time. Heartbroken but imprisoned in a marriage she cannot escape without scandal – not to mention that the union had been irrevocably sealed economically by her debt ridden family because Ruskin agreed to support them financially, which would then be terminated by divorce – Effie hopelessly suffers through this unconsummated marriage for half a dozen years. Which is further exacerbated by Ruskin’s overbearing, contemptuous mother, played with elegant cruelty by Julie Walters.

But Effie finally gathers the courage to defy the oppressive dire circumstances of the day faced by Victorian women, through her friendship and support from a fiercely liberated confidante, Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson). All of which lends a novel historical notion to those many idealistically conceived visions of women in paintings back then, including Effie who herself often served as a model – that they were not only frozen in those frames, but locked up in their own lives as well. Or as becomes evident in the course of this visually resonant film in its own right and in Ruskin’s own words, that rather than a beloved human mate ‘consider me the luckiest of mortals, granted a muse.’

And though there could have been more deciphering and depth to Ruskin’s character rather than bordering on a stick figure emotional villain – in contrast to Effie’s vividly fleshed out portrait – some mysterious intimations linger throughout that he may have been a homosexual resentfully locked in a Victorian closet himself. Though the record beyond this film may speak otherwise, and suggest pedophilia instead. With some evidence that Ruskin first became infatuated with Effie when she was around eleven years old – and he in fact wrote a fantasy novel for her at the time, The King Of The Golden River.

And years after their divorce (whose records indicated physical disgust for her, and possibly upon the sight of her pubic hair) at the age of 39, Ruskin became smitten with another child, ten year old Rose La Touche. And when her family refused his request to marry her eventually, Ruskin suffered a series of mental breakdowns. Subsequently stricken with hallucinations after Rose’s untimely death, which he obsessively experienced as conversations with the deceased object of desire.

And quite interestingly as a side issue to the film, is that the Ruskin scandalous divorce proceedings are said to have contributed to the now well entrenched perception of suppressed Victorian sexuality that precipitated the entire subsequent Freudian cottage industry direction of psychiatry. Yet a possibly wrongheaded perception, that could have been pedophilia suppression instead.

And in keeping with Thompson’s breathlessly captured moments, however fleeting in some cases, is Effie’s exchange with the Ruskin household butler George (Russell Tovey) before she effects her elaborate escape forever from her emotional incarceration there. Recognizing her secretive flight, he confides that his name is not really George, but rather John. And that Ruskin made him call himself George instead, because his imperious employer would not tolerate another John on the premises.

And the now defiant and enlightened Effie when George says he didn’t mind, declares in a luminous moment of shared class and gender awakened solidarity, ‘You should have minded – he took away your name.’ As Ruskin did in marriage, taking away as with George, not only her name but her humanity.

And as an upbeat footnote beyond the solemn proceedings of the film, Effie Gray after fleeing her suffocating circumstances, eventually married Ruskin protege painter John Everett Millais. Who was not horrified by her body, and with whom she eventually bore eight children.

Emma Thompson, you rock.

Effie Gray

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Rated PG-13

Four Stars (Out Of Four)

Watch the Effie Gray trailer:

Prairie Miller
Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network's Arts Express.