Effie Gray is the young bride of renowned art critic, John Ruskin. We open with a brief prologue and their marriage, which seems happy enough, though, as was common for that time, money and security seems to have played a hand in the decision making process.
Things then quickly go south (literally and metaphorically) when they move to Denmark Hill, not into a marital home, but Ruskin's parent's. Two things are quickly established. Firstly, that the parents exert an unnaturally high level of control on John and intend to do the same with Effie. Secondly, this is no ordinary marriage - when Effie offers herself to him, he leaves the room. The rest of the film is then concerned with her wrestling with the predicament of her in-laws interference and freeing herself from a loveless relationship, no easy task, especially for the period.
This type of film is very reliant on well-wrought characters. Yet the film seems very lacking in several crucial dimensions. The character of John Ruskin as portrayed here seems relentlessly taciturn and one dimensional, even when discussing the pre-Raphaelite movement, something which should really get his juices flowing. What exactly his problem is with Effie is hinted at but never really explored. Is he impotent? Is he gay? Is he mad, as some seem to believe? There are hints he could be gay, ie there is a scene when he seems to be masturbating in bed, another later when there is a "moment" between him and a young painter, and also his father seems very aware that there is something which could have held him back which they have shielded him from so he could become the famous art critic he became. Effie is clearly expected to play her part in this.
The film mainly focuses naturally, then, on Effie, yet leaves out crucial aspects. We never get enough of a sense of who Effie is, ie who she was before marriage and losing her hair (from sheer neglect, it seems.) So it's difficult to get a sense of the journey she has to go through to liberate herself from a life of misery.
There is a metaphor used for this doomed relationship when they recall a previous conversation about Diana the wood nymph turning into a tree to escape Apollo's clutches. If anything, it cruelly underscores how unlike this romantic Greek myth they really are. The type of possession Effie seems subject to is not sexual but more akin to a pretty bird in a cage. When she then hallucinates about turning into a tree later it does seem to labour this point in a slightly puzzling way.
A bit of light relief is provided in the character of the worldly Lady Eastlake (the Screenwriter Emma Thompson) who seems perceptive towards Effie and sensitive to her plight, yet is strangely surprised on learning the marriage was not consummated. She also seems to provide a broader context to the plight of women during this period, but she is a frustratingly fleeting presence, given that she is a mentor and a revelation to Effie and a catalyst for her deliverance.
The dark heart of the film is certainly Ruskin's mother, played by Julie Walters. Played as a mixture of pompous refinement and thuggery, this is easily the strongest performance.
Those who are not especially interested in the subject matter (ie art, pre-raphaelites etc) will find little to enjoy here. And the writing is not accomplished enough to be genuinely thought provoking. Still, the performances are good and it does hold your interest for the duration. Be warned, though, it's not much of a giggle.