Emma Thompson’s screenplays foreground sexually restrained women. Her 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was prompted by her television comedy sketch about an ignorant Victorian newlywed disgusted by the sight of the lifeless “mouse” attached to her husband’s lap.
The disgusted Victorian newlywed in Effie Gray—conceived by Thompson as a feminist fairy tale—is the art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise). He takes one look at his naked bride, Euphemia (Dakota Fanning), on their wedding night in 1848 and flees the bedchamber. The forced abstinence and psychological cruelty that ensue cause Effie’s psychosomatic alopecia.
Things come to a head after the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) joins the couple on a Scottish holiday. Millais sympathizes with Effie, and she fantasizes about lying beneath him—and resolves to leave Ruskin and his monstrous parents. Ending before Effie and Millais’s 1855 nuptials, however, Effie Gray lacks a passionate catharsis. “Delayed release” is its watchword: filmed in 2011, it was held up by two separate copyright disputes brought by writers alleging plagiarism.
The film needed further salvation. Fanning excels as a sleeping beauty slowly awakening, but Thompson and Wise are both miscast. Director Richard Laxton deftly lyricizes somberness, yet his compositions can be perplexing, as when Effie is twice framed within the frame after securing her freedom.