Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson returns to the stifled emotions and rigorous social etiquettes of 19th-century English society for her script based on the real-life marital woes of Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride, Euphemia Gray.
A love triangle comprising the unhappily married couple and charming artist John Everett Millais only really comes to the fore in the film’s overwrought final act.
Before then, Thompson builds our sympathy for the eponymous heroine as she weathers a barrage of callousness from her husband and his spiky parents.
Dialogue is well crafted – “If imperfection is your ideal, you must think me very beautiful,” simpers Effie – but for all its prosaic wonder, Richard Laxton’s film lacks the emotional sucker punch that seems to be coming from the dreamy opening frames.
Indeed, the closing scenes in which Effie ponders risking her reputation and social standing to follow her heart should have our tears flowing with a fury.
But the saltwater deluge never comes.
Ruskin (Greg Wise) falls under the spell of 19-year-old Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning) and they marry.
“What shall we do?” Effie politely asks her new husband, “What do married people do?”
“I have as little idea as you, dearest,” he replies.
A formal visit to Ruskin’s parents (David Suchet, Julie Walters) opens Effie’s eyes to the solitude and loneliness that she will have to bear for the rest of her married life.
Ruskin immerses himself in his work while Mrs Ruskin, in particular, makes evident her disdain for her boy’s choice of bride by constantly undermining Effie and forcing her gravely ill daughter-in-law to attend a soiree with Sir Charles Eastlake (James Fox) and Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) when she should be tucked up in bed.
The Ruskins travel to Venice where John once again abandons Effie to her own devices in the company of Rafael (Riccardo Scamarcio), who clearly has amorous designs on the worldly unwise wife.
Back on home soil, Ruskin spirits Effie up to Scotland with Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), who has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the eminent critic.
A spark of attraction between Millais and Effie threatens to spark a full-blown affair but lowly wives do not divorce wealthy husbands and Effie must continue to suffer in silence.
Effie Gray has the right ingredients for a swoonsome, bosom-heaving period romance but something doesn’t quite gel in Laxton’s picture.
Fanning is a touching heroine, mustering courage in her hour of need with encouragement from Thompson in an eye-catching supporting role as the catalyst for female empowerment.
Wise has little to do besides the occasional sneer.
Walters, Suchet make their mark in limited screen time, adding daubs of colour to the film’s palette.