Euphemia "Effie" Gray married the critic and writer John Ruskin in 1848 when she was 19/20 years old and he was 29. Famously the marriage was never consummated and was later annulled, Ruskin having described her thus:
But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.
Exactly what checked Ruskin has been speculated about ever since. Clearly the human interest in this story is compelling. Effie eventually acquires an annulment of their marriage on grounds of non-consummation, and goes onto to marry Ruskin's former protégé John Millais. Joint biographies, of which there are many (see below for a mini bibliography), bill this as a love triangle but we see little of this in the film.
Like many Victorian women, once married Effie is isolated from her family and very much as the mercy of her husband and his parents. This sense of isolation appears to be the many creative point of the film: the empty (of people) rooms, the vacuous proposals for how Effie should spend her days, the ice cold blue/grey cinematography, the slow, measured, carefully enunciated English voice of the American Dakota Fanning all give a stilted, frozen, life-halting feeling. This marriage is not a new start but a kind of living death, and if you go to watch the film you should realise that what you're getting is neither biography nor a love-triangle but a detailed psychological portrait of a thin slice of life. If you're ready for that you'll get much more out of it.
As a psychological portrait I thought it was excellent. Dakota Fanning does a very decent job as a woman in an impossible situation who wouldn't be crushed. Her English accent didn't slip but I did wonder if Effie would have sounded more Scottish. The lack of romance (in the traditional Hollywood sense at any rate) makes Effie seem more isolated and as a result much stronger than if Millais was in any sense a rescuer. Whilst there is clearly a connection between the two, by the end of the film it still has not evolved. Thompson's Effie really leaves Ruskin to be on her own.
Julie Walters does a superbly vicious and fanatical turn as Mrs Millais senior. Emma Thompson is Emma Thompson doing a middle-aged liberated friend (if you like ET you'll like her, otherwise ...) and her script is certainly intelligent.
The main strength of the film is its look. It is truly beautiful and I'm glad I saw it on the big screen. There are some wonderful shots of paintings, and of scenes due to become paintings, especially in Scotland. The colours though are unrelentingly cold: lots of blue, grey, stone, palest green and lots of mists, frosts and winter white skies. Wrap-up, seriously, it is perishing watching it. This is all fitting the psychological portrait very crisply but some of the other imagery is a bit clanking, frustrated Effie manhandling a gondolier's oar, for goodness sake, at one point.
Overall, especially visually, it was extremely watchable. I expected little and actually got quite a lot out of my viewing. Just take a hat, scarf and gloves.
A Selected Effie Gray, John Ruskin, John Everett Milais Bibliography:
Cooper, Suzanne Fagence (2010), The Model Wife: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais
James, William Milbourne, ed. (1948), The Order of Release: The Story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais Told for the First Time in their Unpublished Letters
Lutyens, Mary (1967), Millais and the Ruskins
and on Ruskin:
Abse, Joan (1980), John Ruskin: The Passionate Moralist
Dearden, James S. (1981), John Ruskin: An Illustrated Life, 1819-1900
Harrison, Frederick (1925), John Ruskin
Hunt, John Dixon (1982), The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin
Mather, Marshall (1902), John Ruskin: His Life and Teaching
Proust, Marcel, On Reading Ruskin