There are no spectacular events or climatic moments in Effie Gray. Instead the film gradually builds conflict to give an authentic atmosphere to its 19th century setting. Led by the performance of Dakota Fanning, the movie’s combination of slow melodic music and sparze dialogue creates a rhythm that keeps viewers watching through scenes of nothingness.
Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray (Dakota Fanning) enters the frame telling a story to her little sister about a girl who marries a man with wicked parents, foreshadowing one of the film’s central encounters. The next scene has Gray marrying renowned critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) in Scotland, then they’re on a train heading to Ruskin’s house on the outskirts of London.
From the beginning, there’s an awkward tension between the two, while on the train ride Ruskin brushes a lock of hair from Gray’s face, declaring her aesthetic perfection. Even though the gesture is well-meaning, one might feel uncomfortable not knowing what to think about the couple’s age difference (though history says they were only nine years apart).
Fanning is noteworthy as Gray, never overplaying her role, Director Richard Laxton let’s the film’s supporting cast connect with the audience on a personal level, leaving Fanning to simply garner viewer support for the Gray character, which she does successfully throughout.
Once the newlyweds arrive at Ruskin’s considerable estate, they are met by Margaret Ruskin (Julie Waters), who immediately expresses her desire to give her son a bath. In the few scenes between Margaret and Gray, Waters is powerful in her stern delivery, using few words and a mesmerizing stare, to tell Gray that Ruskin is hers and that she is merely a guest in her house.
Even more captivating is Emma Thompson as Lady Eastlake. It’s significant to mention that Thompson wrote the script for Effie Gray, which explains how she has the best lines in the film. Nevertheless, Thompson inserts a colorful and humorous tone into the film, acting as the bright (visual and metaphorical) saving grace for Gray.
As the film progresses, it’s a struggle between Ruskin and Gray becomes more apparent. At first we think it’s because the two rushed into marriage as Gray asks “What do married people do?” and Ruskin responds in an equally clueless manner. But than we realize it’s something much more, when during a trip to Italy, Ruskin uses a metaphor about Venice to call Gray a whore.
Wise is great in portraying the reserve disgust of Ruskin, who keeps his demeanor as a respected painter, while looking down on Gray as an authoritative man. The reasoning for his repulsion is not fully explained, but it’s alluded that he may not be attracted to Gray’s body, when during their first night together, Ruskin rejects her sexual advances.
Eventually Ruskin realizes that Gray is socially trapped, but that he doesn’t have to be trapped with her. Before he departs on a business trip, Ruskin is not afraid of leaving Gray with his protégé John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), knowing she can never leave him.
The movie is succeeds in it’s decor and use of light in combination with the costumes and movement in the film. It all comes together to make everything seem genuine. The biggest problem and possibly greatest attribute of Effie Gray is it’s ending. The tone changes sharply, in contrast to the gradual nature that defines the rest of the film. Viewers are left unsure what to think because even though the ending is based on a true story, it seems like a fantasy due to the changing cinematography. This may have been what Laxton was trying to do, in order to show the uniquesness of the story. On the other hand, the strong turn ruins some of the good credit the film built earlier as an authentic 19th century retelling.
Either way the film does leave us wondering what actually happens to Effie Gray, which in itself goes a long way in showing the film is successful in telling a captivating story.