In 1848 Euphemia Gray, a bright and pretty young girl from a family of modest means, left her home in Scotland to marry her era's equivalent of an art-world rock star, the imposingly erudite critic John Ruskin. Perhaps as early as her wedding night, Effie knew she'd made a mistake: Though no one knows exactly why, the marriage -- by all accounts a deeply unhappy one for both parties -- was never consummated. And while young Effie was still married to Ruskin, she fell in love with one of the artists he'd championed passionately, the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. After suffering her husband's neglect for years, in the marital bed and elsewhere, Effie finally sought and won an annulment. She and Millais eventually married, and remained a couple until the end of their days.
Gray's story is a great subject for a movie. But Effie Gray, directed by Richard Laxton, written by Emma Thompson, and starring the enchantingly doe-eyed Dakota Fanning, sells its subject short. You can feel the good intentions vibrating off the screen, but it's still a listless affair, one that takes forever to go almost nowhere. The picture struggles so valiantly to be a woman's empowerment fable that it leaves you wishing for just a little romance.
It fixates mostly on our poor heroine's gradual erosion under the dual grindstones of her husband (played by Greg Wise) and her incontrovertibly evil mother-in-law (a foreboding Julie Walters). When Tom Sturridge's lackadaisically soulful Millais finally steps in, it's too little, too late. That's a shame, because Fanning's performance never falters: She can shift from girlish vulnerability to steely grace in the space of a few lines.