If Effie Gray lacks the emotional release that the painstaking accumulation of frustrations appears to demand, it is perhaps testimony to the artistic courage of script writer Emma Thompson (who also stars).
How easy would it have been to surrender to heaving passions and happy endings. After all, that would have been historically accurate. Instead Thompson, and her director Richard Laxton, sidestep Hollywood in favour of understated heartache.
This tale is relentless in its depiction of Victorian spirit-crushing but there are marvels on view in every scene. Costume, set dressing and lighting make the film a thing of beauty. The autumnal hues first suggest festive promise, then the brittle dryness of a loveless marriage and finally the dun deadening of despair.
We take this journey in the company of perspicacious and patient Effie Gray. Despite the cruelties she endures, she will not surrender to her anger or her illicit passions in order to provide the villain or hysteric that her contemptuous husband John Ruskin expects.
Some of the cream of British actors (Sir Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane et al) pop up for a line or two and then vanish revealing the strength of Thompson’s contacts book. None is better than Julie Walters as Ruskin’s poisonous and monstrous mother although David Suchet as her glowering husband matches her for thunder.
But the camera lingers on (American) Dakota Fanning who plays the porcelain cheeked beauty admirably. She moves from capitulation to dismay to the first stirrings of rebellion with unshowy rigour.
The cell of a marriage in a prison of society is the backdrop. Spoilt art critic Ruskin (Greg Wise) erroneously chooses his young muse for marriage and they are both clueless as to what should happen next.
“What do married people do?” Effie asks.
“I have as little idea as you, dearest,” he replies.
Famously, he shies away from “relations” leaving his teenage bride so frustrated and forlorn that her hair falls out. Although his physical neglect may arise from shyness and shock, it quickly becomes loathing and abuse.
She is not without temptations. In Venice, a man makes an improper advance and she is both intrigued and horrified by his brusque physicality. But it is on a trip to Scotland – her homeland – where she begins to understand what must be done.
Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) is commissioned to paint Ruskin and the threesome find themselves locked in a rain-soaked croft. Millais becomes increasingly disgusted by his mentor’s disregard for his wife while his own enchantment with her simplicity, tenderness and beauty seizes him irretrievably.
She recognises both her own emotions and the impossibility of their expression. But, in the quiet moments of her torment, she formulates a plan as cool as her husband’s ardour and as brilliant as her new love’s art.