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For Your Consideration: 'Effie Gray'

The only thing I did not like about Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, a film that should have been in the running for Best Picture this year, was its dismissive treatment of art critic John Ruskin. Now the new film Effie Gray, with a decent screenplay written by Emma Thompson (who also wrote Sense and Sensibility and the Nanny McPhee films), piles on the anti-Ruskin wagon, with a look at the unfortunate critic's failed marriage to the title character, eventually annulled because it was never consummated.

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Effie Gray, directed by Richard Laxton
Ruskin's attitude towards women was, let us say, conflicted -- influenced by his views on art and by the smothering attention of his parents, played here with disturbing relish by David Suchet (known for his turns as Hercule Poirot in those Agatha Christie TV movies) and Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter movies). Ruskin, played here with a sneer and not much else by Greg Wise -- he played John Willoughy with Thompson in Sense and Sensibility and happens to be Thompson's husband in real life -- brings his young wife back to his parents' home after their wedding and appears ready to continue just as he was before. Effie, far from having been forced into the marriage, sincerely tries to make herself fit into this family that does not seem to need her at all. Dakota Fanning, the child actor who caught a huge break in the Twilight series, makes Effie into quite a bore (with facial expressions ranging from empty to expressionless). Fanning's Effie has a spark of life only when she falls in love with her husband's protege, the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everitt Millais (the beautifully pouting Tom Sturridge). In a nice coincidence, Fanning is a dead ringer for the woman shown in Millais's famous painting of Ophelia.

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Indeed most of the fun to be had in this rather dour film, in spite of the steady oversight of TV director Richard Laxton and fine art direction, is farther down the cast list. Thompson and James Fox have a couple of delightful scenes as Elizabeth and Charles Eastlake, who preside over the National Gallery. Speaking of women whose lives might sustain enough interest for a feature film, Thompson should perhaps cast her attention on the life of Elizabeth Eastlake, whose work as a writer, artist, and art critic herself is not even mentioned in Effie Gray. Cameo roles by Derek Jacobi and Italian actress Claudia Cardinale (Fellini's ) are also worth the wait.

This movie opens today at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema.

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