It seems symptomatic of the culture that John Ruskin -- the most eminent English art critic of the Victorian era, champion of J.M.W. Turner, patron of the pre-Raphaelites and one of the more influential minds of his times -- would be immortalized on screen right now for what he failed to do. "Effie Gray," the name of the young woman Ruskin wed and did not bed, has a rather witty script by Emma Thompson (who herself occupies a plum role), sumptuous visuals by the savvy cinematographer Andrew Dunn and a love triangle worthy of a bodice-ripper. But can anything be called a triangle when one of its sides keeps falling down?
Dakota Fanning gives an oddly strangled performance as Effie, with whom Ruskin became infatuated when she was 12 and waited just a couple of years to marry. But such was her plight: Whisked off to London, Effie soon finds that her groom has no plans to set up a household. Instead, the new couple will live with John's proto-helicopter parents (David Suchet, Julie Walters, both great) who have coddled and cultivated their son to the point that his mind is full and his heart is vacant. He also has no plans in the boudoir: The sight of a naked Effie on their wedding night prompts him to flee the room. Effie, when not simply being overlooked, becomes collateral damage in a universe inhabited by emotional monstrosities.
Thompson plays the liberated Lady Eastlake, the only sympathetic ear available to Effie, and the one who advises a way out of an untenable situation. Eastlake is abetted, indirectly, by John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the then-young painter and disciple of Ruskin's, who, factually or not, develops a romantic attachment to his mentor's love-starved wife. Director Richard Laxton, quite deliberately mirroring the lush naturalism, color and construction of the pre-Raphaelites (Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt), creates a world of ironic passions, some of them loose in the visual world, some suffocated in the Victorian bosom. The result is no small amount of tension, despite some overly formal delivery.