Pubic hair ended the marriage between Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride Effie Gray, according to popular lore. Their union was never consummated, so the story goes, because the influential intellectual was too repulsed by the sight of his wife’s loins, which were rather dissimilar in appearance from what Ruskin was used to seeing on women in paintings and sculptures.
Director Richard Laxton (“Burton and Taylor”) and screenwriter Emma Thompson retell the saga of Effie Gray’s suffering under and eventual escape from her eccentric husband, this time as a more conventional story of female subjugation. (Alas, the only hair on view is attached to the actors’ heads.) The film opens with a cloying children’s story of a fairy-tale match gone awry, but the rest is closer to a brocaded Gothic, complete with the slow poisoning of the ingénue (Dakota Fanning) by her jealous, Mrs. Danvers-esque mother-in-law (Julie Walters).
It’s also a sumptuously elegant picture, rivaling last year’s “Mr. Turner” in resplendence, but a disappointingly timid and decorous work that takes more care in outlining oppression than in creating a compelling protagonist. Her suffering is interesting, but she is not.
John (Greg Wise) disappears from Effie’s sight as soon as they arrive at his parents’ manor after their wedding. John’s mother is giving him a bath, Effie’s new father-in-law (David Suchet) explains matter-of-factly, as if that were normal for a man with graying hair and a deeply grooved face.
It takes the newlywed bride some time to realize how strange the Ruskin household really is; Thompson’s script is deeply sympathetic to how all 19th-century matrimonies made for peculiar, even traumatic, circumstances, wrenching girls from their birth families and leaving them subject to the whims of strangers. But such arranged marriages can become happy too, as Effie’s sole confidant Lady Eastlake (Thompson) attests, especially when children bond husband and wife to one another.
But John refuses to touch his new wife – a rebuff that’s not only personally humiliating but also cruel in denying her a son or daughter she can love. The ornate crypt that is Effie’s new home is full of other subtle tortures: she’s forced out of her sickbed when company calls, to perform her duties as a hostess despite her illness, and when she’s well, she has so little to do that she resorts to ripping up her husband’s shirts so she has some mending to do. John spends his hours championing artistic work where emotions leap off the canvas, but he prefers his home – and his marriage – as tranquil as a tomb.
The couple take an extended honeymoon in Italy, where Effie learns the dangers of reaching out to other men for company, and it isn’t until they return to her native Scotland for a restorative trip that she finally sees a path toward happiness: The Ruskins are joined by the painter Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), who’s hired to render a portrait of John.
Everett is the film’s only gentleman, but to the film’s credit, he’s no Prince Charming to the rescue. It’s Effie who ultimately saves herself, dusting off her Cinderella-like docility to scheme her flight from the Ruskins with the help of Lady Eastlake, who serves as a kind of mortal fairy godmother. Frustratingly, though, this steel-spined version of Effie appears much too late, and the scenes of small-scale rebellion, as when the beautiful young woman wears her hair to display the bald spots that have emerged as a result of her nervous depression, are too rare.
Laxton’s measured pace appropriately parallels the slow stifling that Effie undergoes, but he extends his muted approach too far, depriving the film of the emotional crescendo it badly needs.
Given that the film hinges on Effie’s (thoroughly justified) breakup of her own marriage, it seems Laxton and Thompson were excessively apprehensive about making their female protagonist “unlikable.” But the sanding down of Effie’s edges – or, indeed, any sign of a personality whatsoever – feels like its own kind of oppression, as if happy endings can only be reserved for girls and women who comport themselves with flawless propriety.