Do a bit of reading about the disastrous marriage of Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray to the prominent Victorian art critic John Ruskin and you will realise that it contained too much story for a single film. Ruskin was encouraged to take an interest in Effie by his parents and by the time she was twelve, he had written her a fairy tale that remains in print to this day. By the time Effie was twenty, the pair were married. By the time Effie was twenty six, the marriage was annulled for reasons of impotence. The annulment shocked Victorian society and numerous writers and directors have since tried to understand what happened by emphasising various aspects of the historical record. Written by Emma Thompson, Effie Gray approaches the story from a feminist angle but while Effie’s principled stand against Victorian propriety certainly convinces, Richard Laxton’s squeamish direction will have you wishing that she’d taken to her feet just that little bit sooner.
Effie’s (Dakota Fanning) married life does not start well. Despite being a grown man with an emerging reputation as both a writer and an educator, her husband John Ruskin (Greg Wise) continues to live with his parents and the first thing that happens when he gets home is that his mother (Julie Walters) insists upon bathing him while his father (David Suchet) brags about how John’s art criticism has increased the value of his art collection. Settled into her new home, Effie sets about trying to find a way to fit into her husband’s life but any attempt to help him in his work or provide company is rejected and any attempt to prepare his food or darn his socks results in howls of outrage from a parental home that refuses to treat John as anything other than a pampered child.
Thompson’s awareness of how Victorian society oppressed women and robbed them of their agency is excellent and many of the hardships that Effie experiences at the hands of Ruskin’s parents will be familiar even to the women of today. However, while Thompson’s perspective on Victorian society is fascinating, it does seem rather an odd fit for a story about a young woman who wanted nothing more from life than a chance to be a loving wife and doting mother. It also seems rather peculiar to stress the dehumanising effects of Victorian sexism when the film contains not one but two charismatic and empowered women. The real problem here is that while the film feels quite comfortable dissecting the everyday sexism of Victorian society, all attempts to extend that analysis to the breakup of the Ruskin marriage lack conviction and so leave the broader social critique feeling isolated and irrelevant.
The real heart of the matter is that Ruskin never consummated his marriage with Effie because he was disgusted by what he saw when she first took off her clothes. The film makes it clear that the problem was not with Effie but it proves maddeningly coy when it comes to making suggestions as to what the real problem might have been. For example, the suggestion that Ruskin was bathed by his mother combined with another scene in which Ruskin’s mother massively over-reacts to the suggestion that Ruskin wears nappies gestures towards incest but the film never commits to that idea. Similarly, the film establishes that Ruskin adored Effie as a child and sets up a similar relationship between Ruskin and Effie’s younger sister but rather than exploring the idea that Ruskin might have been attracted to pre-pubescent girls, the film seems content to whisper its suspicions and then wander off looking innocent. In fairness to the filmmakers, a period drama about a man who either lusted after young girls or had sex with his mother would have proved something of a hard sell but the film’s coyness also extends to less transgressive theories.
The film’s keystone feminist analysis emerges during a scene in which Ruskin and Effie are touring Venice. Confronted by a marble statue, Ruskin waxes poetical about how the woman in the statue chose to turn herself into a tree rather than surrender her innocence. This suggests that Ruskin’s refusal to consummate his marriage might have something to do with a hatred and fear of female sexuality but this not only conflicts with the suggestion that Ruskin might have had transgressive sexual appetites, it also falls prey to the film’s general squeamishness regarding Effie’s sexuality.
About half way through the film, Ruskin decides to take Effie back to Scotland in the hope that it might prove restorative. The couple take with them Ruskin’s latest protégé the artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) who is absolutely appalled by Ruskin’s unpleasant temper and complete disinterest in his wife. The thing is that John Everett Millais is the person who married Effie after she left Ruskin and the couple wound up having no less than eight children suggesting that their physical relationship was probably about as happy as happy can be. However, while the script clearly intends to contrast the warmth and sexual availability of Millais with the passive-aggressive froideur of Ruskin, the film struggles to find any chemistry at all between Millais and Effie. In fact, the couple’s interactions are so unambiguously platonic that it makes the final scene in which Effie vows to marry Millais feel more like desperation than genuine passion.
Much of the blame for the film’s lack of passion must be laid at the feet of director Richard Laxton as while he does an excellent job of communicating the oppressive atmosphere of Ruskin’s parental home, he insists upon returning to the same murky palette for the entire film. His inability to engage with the passions simmering beneath the surface of the story is particularly evident in the performances he coaxes from his actors as Fanning imbues Effie a bloodless passivity while Sturridge’s beady-eyed performance is more reminiscent of Ben Whishaw’s turn as Pingu in the Chris Morris sitcom Nathan Barley than a young artist who would later devote his career to worshiping Effie as an icon of beauty and fertility.
The film’s lack of energy is also apparent in its terrible pacing as Effie spends at least an hour mooning about the place looking decoratively pale before finally trying to improve her situation. The second Effie decides to talk to someone about her problems, the film comes alive as covert trips to doctors and lawyers give the film a sense of tension and purpose sorely lacking during the first couple of acts. However, no sooner has Effie discovered her sense of agency and found the courage to rebel against Victorian society than the film comes to a sudden and abrupt end. The fact that the film only really comes to life once Effie gains some agency poses serious questions about Laxton’s approach to the script. Given that this was a film all about repressed passions, why was he so bloodless? Given that this was a film about female rebellion, why did he allow the creation of such an insipid Effie? Looking back over the film it is easy to imagine how much better it might have been had Fanning been allowed out of her shell and onto the domestic battlefield. It would not even have required any rewrites, just a shift of emphasis and a willingness to recognise that while Effie did not win any of those early battles with her mother-in-law, it was not for the want of trying. The real tragedy here is that while Thompson’s script may try to tell the story of a feminist icon, the man employed to turn that script into a film took his cues from John Ruskin and contented himself with a sexless doll.