Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB. United Kingdom, 2014. Sovereign Films. Screenplay by Emma Thompson. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Produced by Andreas Roald, Donald Rosenfeld. Music by Paul Cantelon. Production Design by James Merifield. Costume Design by Ruth Myers. Film Editing by Kate Williams.
Euphemia Gray (Dakota Fanning) first met art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) when she was twelve, when he penned the fantasy story The King Of the Golden River for her and won her heart (the slight creepiness of her winning his is glossed over very quietly). They were married seven years later and moved from her native Scotland to his family’s home in London, where he goes back to being fully indulged by his obsessive parents and she becomes the bullying target of all three. Young and naïve but self-assured and possessed of a certain grace, Effie bears the indignities of being ignored by her husband in favour of his research quietly to her own detriment, becoming increasingly ill, her hair falling out and the life draining from her eyes. The only saving graces to a prison of a life is the genuine but ultimately unhelpful concern of Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the script), married to the president of the Royal Academy, and meeting painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) with whom she falls in love. When five years of marriage pass without any consummation of the Ruskin union (and not even a kind word from him ever), our heroine takes it upon herself to make what she feels is the only choice she can, and we as an audience feel no pity for him or his parents (played with unapologetic cruelty by David Suchet and Julie Walters), who abhor public scandal but bring it upon themselves so willingly. A fully appealing cast is stultified by incredibly bland direction and a script rich with intelligent dialogue but little complexity: everyone is given one thing to be and to do, and they simply do it until the film’s end. There is one central conflict that is given little nuance, leaving a sensitive and engaging Fanning looking stunned for two hours, while Thompson’s lively manner is wasted on a role that comes to no useful fruition. The part of Effie’s life that it covers is actually the beginning of something richer, the film strangely not confirming the happy ending she had in real life, while the strange choice of Wise in the lead makes it seem like there is an oppressive fatherly relationship in her marriage which was not actually the case (Ruskin was only nine years older than her; Wise is twenty-eight years older than Fanning and looks it). Also features an anticlimactic appearance by the great Claudia Cardinale, who is as lost at sea as everyone else in this unfortunate failure. The film was plagued by lawsuits charging Thompson with plagiarizing two theatrical productions and unproduced screenplays on the same subject, which delayed release until the courts found in her favour in both cases.